Yes, as the administration is fond of reminding, the United States remains a global market like no other, but with multiple economic centers emerging, the U.S. is not nearly as central as it was. Foreign countries and businesses have more options and more markets than ever, and the more friction the U.S. creates, the more attractive those options become.
Starting a trade war with a series of pallid actions is, therefore, the ultimate mistake. It interferes with one of the fastest-growing import and export markets in the world for the United States without generating nearly enough actual revenue to make a difference except to the already vulnerable domestic American industries and consumers that are purportedly protected. It does little to halt China’s future trajectory as a domestic innovator with its own intellectual property that relies less on the United States than in the past, and punishes China for acts already committed that cannot be retroactively reversed.
Trump’s hot rhetoric may prove successful in the very modest sense of preventing some of the past abuses. Given the changed nature of China’s economy, that won’t matter nearly as much going forward even if the abuses continue, but some adjustment on China’s part would at least restore some level of trust between the two countries. That would certainly be for the best. It would also be a small step for such a large threat, compared with the much greater harm that might result. If, on the other hand, we do plunge into an actual trade war, the U.S. is unlikely to emerge stronger and China is unlikely to weaken. The only way for Trump to win his trade war is if it is never fought.