Just because the president’s trade war is masochistic doesn’t mean Trump is entirely wrong in his diagnosis that China is a bad actor. The country’s long history of intellectual property abuse spans counterfeiting, stealing trade secrets, and forcing companies to give up their IP to do business in the mainland. A 2019 CNBC survey found that one in five U.S. corporations say China has stolen their IP in the last year.
Still, the president is playing a dangerous game of high-stakes poker, with American wages and savings as the chips at the center of the table. And, of course, the stakes can always get higher: Trade wars can become literal wars. In 2015, the Chinese state-owned newspaper Global Times wrote in one saber-rattling editorial that if the U.S. presses China to accept all of its trade demands, “then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea.”
An armed conflict between the two countries would be both catastrophic and anomalous. According to research by JP Morgan analyst Michael Cembalest, the U.S. and China are more economically linked through bilateral trade, foreign direct investment, and central bank holdings than any two countries that have declared war since the 1930s. A violent showdown between the U.S. and China in the near future remains extremely unlikely. But if Donald Trump has taught the world anything in the last two-and-a-half years, it’s that this presidency does not seem particularly constrained by the forces of historical precedent.