The US Will Lose Its Trade War with China
by Anatole Kaletsky–LONDON – The United States cannot win its tariff war with China, regardless of what President Donald Trump says or does in the coming months. Trump believes that he has the upper hand in this conflict because the US economy is so strong, and also because politicians of both parties support the strategic objective of thwarting China’s rise and preserving US global dominance.
But, ironically, this apparent strength is Trump’s fatal weakness. By applying the martial arts principle of turning an opponent’s strength against him, China should easily win the tariff contest, or at least fight Trump to a draw.
Economists since David Ricardo have argued that restricting imports reduces consumer welfare and impedes productivity growth. But that is not the main reason why Trump will be forced to back down in the trade war. In handicapping the US-China conflict, another economic principle – rarely used to explain the futility of Trump’s tariff threats – is much more important than Ricardo’s concept of comparative advantage: Keynesian demand management.
Comparative advantage certainly influences long-term economic welfare, but demand conditions will determine whether China or America feels more pressure to sue for trade peace in the next few months. And a focus on demand management clearly reveals that the US will suffer from Trump’s tariffs, while China can avoid any adverse effects.
From a Keynesian perspective, the outcome of a trade war depends mainly on whether the combatants are experiencing recession or excess demand. In a recession, tariffs can boost economic activity and employment, albeit at the cost of long-term efficiency. But when an economy is operating at or near its maximum capacity, tariffs will merely raise prices and add to the upward pressure on US interest rates. This clearly applies to the US economy today.
US businesses could not, in aggregate, find extra low-wage workers to replace Chinese imports, and even the few US businesses motivated by tariffs to undercut Chinese imports would need to raise wages and build new factories, adding to the upward pressure on inflation and interest rates. With little spare capacity available, the new investment and hiring required to replace Chinese goods would be at the cost of other business decisions that were more profitable before the tariff war with China. So, unless US