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Opinion Trump is playing a risky game of chicken

President Trump on June 22 in Washington.
President Trump on June 22 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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PRESIDENT TRUMP escalated his trade conflict with China over the past week, threatening the People’s Republic with tariffs on as much as $450 billion in products that it sells to the United States, which totaled $505.6 billion last year. The proximate cause was China’s threat to match U.S. tariffs on $50 billion in goods that are slated to go into effect on July 6. The ultimate cause, according to Mr. Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, is China’s economic “aggression,” specifically Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan to dominate cutting-edge industries such as artificial intelligence, along with its long-standing violations of U.S. intellectual property and forced technology transfer from U.S. investors in China. Notwithstanding reports of hardship for American farms and factories already, “China must know it has far more to lose in this trade dispute,” Mr. Navarro wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

We wish we could say Mr. Navarro’s strategy is likely to work. Many of the issues he identifies are real, even if he states them in the most inflammatory and exaggerated terms. The problem is that his boss, the president, is unable to set priorities. Instead of focusing on China, the country with which we and many other nations have the most legitimate grievances, Mr. Trump is simultaneously pursuing trade battles with every major U.S. ally. The U.S. position regarding China would be stronger if Beijing faced a united front that also included Europe, Japan, Mexico and Canada. As it is, Mr. Trump is threatening them with large tariffs as well, driving them to explore closer relations with Beijing.

The fundamental basis of the president’s go-it-alone approach is ideological: America first. There is ostensibly an economic case for it as well; Mr. Navarro says Beijing has more to lose from a tariff battle because its exports to the United States far outstrip our exports to them. The same argument could be made about any country that currently enjoys a trade surplus with the United States. What’s more, the U.S. economy is currently at full employment with rising wages, and exports account for only about an eighth of U.S. economic output, as opposed to roughly a third for the average high-income economy.

But these factors advantage the United States only as long as its overall economy remains unaffected by the distortions and rising costs associated with tariffs. A growing number of economists suggest that could start to change within a year, depending on how quickly Mr. Trump follows through on all his threats. Then the advantage might shift to the people with whom Mr. Trump has picked this fight. China, a dictatorship, can contain whatever domestic political unrest might be caused by the economic hit China takes from U.S. tariffs, especially since it can blame the pain on Washington. U.S. allies, too, will be able to point the finger at the American president. Meanwhile, back in the United States, every conceivable industry and interest group that gets hurt by Chinese and other retaliation will be putting pressure on the administration, demanding relief.

In short, Mr. Trump owns this trade war, at home and abroad. He not only has decided to play a game of chicken with the U.S. economy. He has decided to play against the whole world.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: Trump says trade wars are ‘easy.’ Here come the first American casualties.

Robert J. Samuelson: What comes after the trade war?

The Trump administration's tariffs on imported steel and aluminum are hitting close to home at a metal stamping plant in Cleveland. (Video: Simon Brubaker/The Washington Post)

The Post’s View: It’s time for Congress to take back trade

Catherine Rampell: Trump’s tariffs are already backfiring

Robert J. Samuelson: Trump’s trade war isn’t about economics. It’s about politics.