Now, the only thing that’s epic is the deepening rift between the world’s two biggest economies. Last week, Trump shocked onlookers by announcing his intention to slap additional tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese goods imported to the United States, starting in September. After the value of the Chinese yuan weakened on Monday and global markets started to plummet, the U.S. Treasury Department took the dramatic step of declaring China a currency manipulator — a charge rebuffed by Beijing. On Tuesday, the Dow and other indexes recovered a bit, but jitters remained.
Some analysts fear that the Trump administration is blowing through established norms in a game of brinkmanship that may backfire. “This is a big policy mistake. We get recession because of policy mistakes like this,” Allen Sinai, chief economist and strategist at Decision Economics, told The Washington Post. “China did not actively drive its currency down. It was a market-driven move.”
Trump supporters argue that, with a relatively strong economy at his back, Trump should press his advantage against an adversary already weakened by U.S. tariffs. “America’s pundits are absolutely correct to argue that China’s leaders want to ‘save face’ by appearing not to lose the trade war,” Salvatore Banones wrote in the National Interest. “And they are just as absolutely wrong to argue that the United States should accommodate this desire.”
For Xi, the geopolitical tussle with Trump is part of a tense high-wire act in Beijing. Since taking office in 2012, Xi has ruthlessly consolidated his position, chilling dissent, purging the Communist Party of potential rivals, scrapping term limits to his rule, and propagating his own ideological cult across the country. But, as my colleagues reported, he’s not omnipotent, and there are whispers of internal party discontent over the tensions gripping the country.
“Because of this sense of insecurity, party leaders view the Trump administration’s declaration of a trade war not as a purely economic matter but as a broader, strategic effort to contain China,” my colleague Anna Fifield reported, pointing to “a sense of alarm” within the Chinese leadership over mounting external threats and domestic fragility.
That’s why, it seems, Beijing has decided not to bow to Trump’s demands over its economy and trade practices. “It is unlikely China will buckle to any further pressure as they are convinced dealing with the current U.S. administration means give them an inch and they want a foot,” Charles Liu, a former economic negotiator with the Chinese delegation at the United Nations, told Bloomberg News. “There does not seem to be serious interest from the U.S. side of actually wanting to do a deal.”
Trump, for his part, sees his contest with China as a key part of his 2020 reelection pitch. He has also admitted that he doesn’t believe China will cut a deal with him until it sees him win reelection. And so the two titans of the global economy are locked in a staring contest, waiting to see who blinks, or winces, first.
“China’s leaders appear to have concluded that they won’t secure an acceptable trade deal with President Trump,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Nathaniel Taplin. “What they can do is try to weather the next 18 months while inflicting maximum political damage — and hope a weakening U.S. economy delivers a new president.”
That realization is making some in Trump’s world nervous. “We’re learning that maybe China has a higher pain threshold than we thought here,” Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to Trump during the 2016 election who remains close to the White House, told my colleague Damian Paletta. “They don’t seem to care that this is having extreme negative effects on their economy. It’s kind of a mutually assured destruction game right now.”
And they will almost certainly not be the last to suffer. “The latest U.S. tariffs come into force in less than four weeks’ time,” noted an editorial in the Guardian. “Without question these are the most crucial weeks for the global trading system since the 1930s. If Trump and Xi miscalculate, as all the signs suggest that they might, the upshot will be a full-blown trade and currency war that will shred business confidence, close factories and increase unemployment.”