When he campaigned for office in 2016, Donald J. Trump made it clear his intention to tear apart the consensus not only on foreign policy but on trade.
Specifically, Trump spoke glowingly of his support for tariffs, protectionism, and basically using America’s trade policy not to ensure the much-ballyhooed efficiency of the global economy but to protect US national interests and American workers from rapacious foreign companies and countries.
Trump rightly assessed that America’s quasi-religious commitment to the neoliberal concept of “Free Trade”, practiced for decades before Donald Trump ascended to the White House, unfairly empowered the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the expense of ordinary Americans and the US economy.
Trump’s protectionist trade outlook would, he believed, reset the US-China trade relationship by stopping China from enjoying the overtly unfair trade practices that a coterie of American leaders had allowed for China’s leaders to create.
Once in office, Trump immediately initiated a controversial trade war over agricultural goods flowing from the United States into China (he eventually began a tech war that continues today under his successor, Joe Biden).
At the time that Trump enacted his agricultural trade war, most experts—Democrat and Republican alike—insisted that it was the equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot. But after nearly two years of the vicious trade war, China inevitably cried “uncle!”
Donald Trump Won the Trade War
Yes, the China trade war was felt by Americans, notably the farmers most of whom had thrown their lot in with Trump politically. All trade wars are double-sided affairs. Despite what the Wall Street Journal editorial board and the pundits of CNBC squawked, Trump did win the agricultural trade war.
Trump ultimately got his deal.
He won for the Americans something that no president since trade was normalized between Beijing and Washington had achieved: lower prices on agricultural products from China and better prices for American farmers and agricultural firms selling their products to China.
Don’t just take my word for it.
Listen to prominent Chinese economists, like Fudan University’s Yang Zhou, who admitted that China’s GDP loss as a result of Trump’s trade war was, “three times as high as the US” during the trade war.
Further, Chinese firms sold considerably less of their products than they would have without Trump’s trade war (hence, the massive contraction of China’s GDP). More to the point, China’s leadership became fearful that, thanks to Trump’s example, both he and future American leaders would break with their traditional treatment of China on trade and start getting tougher.
After all, it was China, not the United States, that ultimately was weakened by the trade war. In America, the country—and agricultural sector—kept marching on.
In China, on the other hand, the agricultural trade war and the subsequent decline in China’s GDP, chaos was beginning to erupt.
Hong Kong had been consumed by protests aimed at President Xi Jinping’s unpopular “national security” laws aimed at ending Hong Kong’s semi-independent standing in China and subordinating the democratic former British colony to Beijing’s communist system.
Xi Under Pressure from Trump
President Xi was looking bad and, thanks to the economic slowdown created partly as a result of Trump’s unpopular trade war, was increasingly under political pressure.
In China’s system, there is a tacit and enduring agreement between those who rule over China and those over which they rule. So long as the CCP delivers massive economic growth, can help make goods and services available and affordable, and provides stability for the Chinese people, the people of China will follow the CCP.
Once the CCP’s leadership stops providing these essentials for the Chinese people, then, the CCP’s legitimacy—specifically, Xi’s—is at risk.
The last thing that Xi needed was for either Trump or successors to build upon the Trump agricultural trade war and start hitting China’s unfair trade practices with reciprocal unfair trade practices. The Trump Administration’s agricultural trade war did not end the entire corrupt Chinese trade practices.
But it did start to balance it, however small the balancing may have been.
The agricultural trade war was a portent of things to come, had Trump been reelected. Should Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis or Vivek Ramaswamy become president, they too would follow similar policies against China in trade.
Trump’s trade war did exactly what it was supposed to: weaken China’s economy long enough to force Beijing to come to the negotiating table and craft a fairer deal.
That was precisely what Donald Trump got. That is the way forward with China.
About the Author
A 19FortyFive Senior Editor, Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (Encounter Books), and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (July 23). Weichert occasionally serves as a Subject Matter Expert for various organizations, including the Department of Defense. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.