Propaganda poster for the Chinese People's Liberation Army GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

The Shape of Sino-American Conflict

The fact that the current trade spat is about more than economics will make it much harder to manage. While China might be able to avoid a devastating trade war in the short term, the long-term trajectory of US-China relations is almost certain to be characterized by escalating tension, and potentially even a full-blown cold war.

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – For most observers of the unfolding trade war between the United States and China, the casus belli is the convergence of China’s unfair trade practices with US President Donald Trump’s protectionist credo. But this reading misses a critical development: the demise of America’s decades-long policy of engagement with China.

Trade spats are nothing new. When allies engage in such disputes – as the US and Japan did in the late 1980s – it is generally safe to assume that the real issue is economic. But when they happen between strategic rivals – such as the US and China today – there is likely to be more to the story.

Over the last five years, Sino-American relations have changed fundamentally. China has increasingly reverted to authoritarianism – a process that culminated with the elimination of presidential term limits last March – and pursued a statist industrial policy, embodied by its “Made in China 2025” plan.