Jul 12, 2018 09:26 PM

Opinion: Why Trump Started the Trade War

* Future U.S. policies toward China will aim to keep the U.S. at least 20 years ahead of China economically and militarily

* Competition between the two nations will make the trade war long-term and normalized

(Beijing) — A Sino-U.S. trade war finally broke out on Friday when the U.S. began imposing additional tariffs on Chinese imports, triggering China’s countermeasures. Why did the Trump administration launch the trade war against China? The answer lies in geopolitics.

American President Donald Trump’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) report, which was published in December, named China as a strategic competitor. 

The report said that the U.S. “will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world.” It believed that “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”

The report also stated that “competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict. ... An America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict.”

Many Americans now regret that they have not suppressed China earlier, and the country has been strong enough to threaten the U.S. Even though the U.S. does not think that China wants to “bury” the U.S. one day as the Soviet Union did, or there will be a military battle between the two, the U.S. is a state with a high level of vigilance.

What matters for the U.S. is not the intention, but the ability. Americans may ask themselves who can make sure that China won’t eventually suppress the U.S. after 10 or 20 years of development. The NSS report fully reflected such concerns among the American elite. Under the circumstances, it can be expected that future U.S. policies toward China will aim to keep staying ahead of China economically and militarily, at least 20 years ahead — if the U.S. can’t develop fast enough, then it will make China develop slower.

The NSS report noted that competitions, including with China, “require the U.S. to rethink the policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”

What does this mean? Does it mean that the U.S. will no longer engage with China, and drive China out of international institutions and global commerce? It’s too late to do so. A more realistic approach for the U.S. may be to prevent China from further benefiting from globalization, integration and liberalization in the areas of trade, investment, finance and technology, thus narrowing the gap with the U.S.

It’s quite certain that for a long time in the future, the U.S. and China will compete in all fields, with economics being the most competitive, and the trade war will become long-term and normalized. We can seemingly conclude that in terms of the external environment, the “period of strategic opportunity for development” for China has basically come to an end.

Yu Yongding, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, served as a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China from 2004 to 2006.

Translated by Lin Jinbing (

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Yu Yongding

Yu Yongding, a former president of the China Society of World Economics and director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, served on the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China from 2004 to 2006.