One cannot understand the U.S.-China trade war without a geopolitical lens. by Jennifer Lind Associate Professor Dartmouth College

One cannot understand the U.S.-China trade war without a geopolitical lens.

By JENNIFER LIND Associate Professor, Dartmouth College, and Associate Fellow, Chatham House

Observers typically rely on two lenses to understand the current U.S.-China trade war. One lens focuses on the specific menu of predatory Chinese practices—tariffs, barriers to foreign direct investment, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and so on.
This lens analyzes these practices and their effects on the U.S. economy; it assumes that the trade war will end when the two countries negotiate some sort of compromise, which will return bilateral relations to their previous uneasy but generally functional state. People also view the trade war through the lens of domestic politics.
This lens focuses on the populist wave that swept the United States and propelled Donald Trump into the presidency. According to this lens, Trump— and his misguided, zero-sum views about international economics—caused the trade war. Once the Trump Administration is a thing of the past, the trade war will end, and we can all “go back to the way it was.”

These two lenses are both important, but incomplete. One cannot understand the U.S.-China trade war without a geopolitical lens. A predictable feature of international politics is that periods of great-power rise are tense and dangerous—indeed, historically, they have often led to wars. Tensions mount as a rising power grows into a system in which the powerful countries have written the rules; increasingly the rising state has the power to assert its interests, and to renegotiate those rules. And, understandably, the powerful countries try to defend the rules that they set up according to their preferences and interests.

Such is our world today. China has moved from a poor, weak, isolated country to one of the world’s largest economies and manufacturing powerhouses. Formerly an economy that assembled products designed by others, China is steadily moving up the value chain and rising in the ranks of the world’s most innovative countries.
As China grows more capable, Beijing is seeking greater authority in the forums that dictate the rules of the road in international politics and economics. It is also launching initiatives and institutions of its own (such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and others).
In the security realm, China is more assertively advancing and defending territorial claims, and increasingly refusing to tolerate the U.S. military presence in East Asia. The geopolitical lens reminds us that periods such as this—periods of great-power rise and relative decline—have always been tense, and often violent. The trade war is but one symptom of much larger forces at work. Namely, we are seeing a wholesale renegotiation of relations between China and the world, and particularly China and the United States: two great powers determined to advance their national interests. In not only the realm of trade, but across the many realms in which these two countries interact, this process will be fraught and dangerous. Assuming China’s rise is not derailed by a major internal crisis, there is no going back to “the way things used to be.”

Jennifer Lind
Jennifer Lind has just contributed to a symposium about China in International Economy magazine (“Is the U.S.-China Economic Relationship About to Permanently Shrink?)
Special thanks to Jennifer Lind Professor of International Relations at the University of Dartmouth and Harvard for giving us the opportunity of publishing an article that she wrote in the International Economy magazine at a symposium on China.
Jennifer Lind Also held an exciting conference on China and the USA on December 3rd at the Annual Conference on Asia organized by IFRI.

Biography
Jennifer Lind was appointed associate fellow in 2018. She is associate professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and a faculty associate at the Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies at Harvard University. She is an expert on the international relations of East Asia and US foreign policy toward the region.
Professor Lind authored the book Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Cornell University Press, 2008) and has published several articles in journals such as International Security and International Studies Quarterly. She speaks frequently at international conferences, comments regularly in major media outlets, and publishes op-eds and essays in Foreign Affairs and National Interest. She holds a PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Areas of expertise
• US foreign policy and security relations
• Security relations on the Korean peninsula
• US-China relations
• Japanese foreign and security policy
• Rising powers; the rise of China

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