During election campaigning, Donald Trump promised to protect American industry from Chinese competition, pledging to bring back jobs and put America’s interests first. Just have a look on YouTube for the scores of montages of Donald Trump mentioning China in his speeches should you need any proof of how central China was to Trump’s platform. This policy helped Trump win over traditionally Democratic voters in the Rust Belt, enabling him to break the so-called ‘blue wall’ of states that give their electoral college votes to the Democratic candidate. This ultimately helped Trump secure the Presidency by a narrow victory in several swing states.
Jump forward two years or so, and we are beginning to see the specifics of what Trump meant then. The President has been steadily elevating tensions with China, most recently lambasting so-called ‘stupid trade’ in a tweet on 9 April. These are not idle threats though; in a recent directive, Trump advised various authorities to consider placing over $100 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese goods, marking the start of what many fear could turn into one of the largest trade wars in recent memory.
Suffice it to say, this announcement wasn’t especially well received by China, who promised to deploy ‘comprehensive countermeasures’ in reply to President Trump’s comments. Nor was the announcement well received by the markets – the Dow Jones lost some 572 points on 5 April. White House economics advisor Larry Kudlow sought to play down the risk of a trade war, saying “I don’t think there is any trade war in sight,” during an appearance on Fox News, but warned China that Trump was “not bluffing.”
While China may have more to lose in raw economic terms – America is China’s second-biggest trading partner after the European Union – Trump may have more to lose from a political perspective. Chinese retaliation appeared to be aimed at things like soy products and the car industry, things that are large employers in the red states that carried Trump to victory in November 2016. And though China has limited interest in a trade war, a country seeking to establish itself as a major player on the international stage will not back away from this challenge. The Chinese economy is fit enough to sustain such a competition.
Only time will tell if Trump’s new tariff policy is mere sabre rattling, but the markets are edgy, and there is every reason to learn from his shock victory eighteen months ago, and take Donald Trump seriously.