"There's a raging debate in Beijing about whether Trump wants a trade deal or whether he wants to thwart China's rise," said one U.S. policy expert. "Those who think Trump wants to contain China are opposed to making concessions."
BEIJING — The trade war is not about trade. The trade war is about the United States trying to contain China and undercut its rise.
That’s the increasingly common theory percolating in Beijing these days after President Donald Trump slapped another, even bigger, round of tariffs on Chinese goods —and prompted China to retaliate with its own levies on U.S. imports.
Washington might see this as attempts at straightforward economic rebalancing.
But many in Beijing’s leadership look at it in through a wider lens of Chinese ascendance and U.S. anxieties of shifting power balances.
The elements they see include Trump’s relative friendliness toward Taiwan, the prospect of U.S. sanctions over China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and the American decision to exclude China from Pacific Rim military exercises this year.
Taken together, there is a strong whiff of conspiracy from China’s perspective. That could add another layer of complications to the already deepening trade battles.
“There’s a raging debate in Beijing about whether Trump wants a trade deal or whether he wants to thwart China’s rise,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Those who think Trump wants to contain China are opposed to making concessions.”
In public commentaries and in private conversations, the containment theory increasingly comes up.
“The United States’ intention to disrupt China’s development process has been thoroughly exposed,” the People’s Daily reported in the lead-up to Trump’s decision Monday to slap tariffs on an additional $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.
The fact that the sanctions were imposed on the anniversary of Japan’s invasion of northern China in 1931 — a day that many Chinese see as an unofficial day of national humiliation — just rubbed salt into the wound.
A commentary in Qiushi, the publication of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and one of the best reflections of the cadres’ thinking, said those who were attacking China’s style of state-directed capitalism were doing so “to create public opinion to curb the development of emerging countries, especially China’s development.”
By trying to “distort, smear and slander China’s socialist market economic system,” these critics were trying to shake public confidence in it “and ultimately thwart China’s development,” said the commentary, published earlier this month.
These assertions in state media are a reflection of an increasingly common sentiment in the Chinese capital, where President Xi Jinping’s government has been trying to figure out what, exactly, Trump is playing at.
Trump’s actions with tariffs were “threatening China’s economic interests and security,” the Commerce Ministry said Tuesday night, hinting at the theory that this was about more than trade deficits.
Although China’s once-booming growth rates have slowed markedly in recent years, it is still on track to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy around 2030, according to respected researchers.
But China stands accused of using unfair trading practices, such as dumping, industrial subsidies and forced technology transfer, to help get to No. 1.
When Trump became president and started attacking China for enjoying a trade surplus with the United States that hit $375 billion last year, Beijing didn’t think he was serious, said Paul Haenle, a former China adviser on the Bush and Obama national security councils and now director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.
“Early on, the Chinese had a very simple narrative that all this trade stuff was about Trump’s short-term political objectives, about getting a tweetable victory,” he said. “Now, they’re at the other end of the spectrum. Now it’s all about the U.S. trying to block China’s rise.”
“It’s all,” he added, “about China as victim.”
To sustain this theory, Beijing points to evidence such as the United States’ exclusion of China earlier this year from the Hawaii-based Rim of the Pacific exercises, the world’s largest set of international maritime war games. Many Chinese believe the snub was punishment for its expansion in the South China Sea, which China views as part of its territory but is strongly opposed by the United States and its regional allies.
Beijing also has criticized the revival of the “Quad” strategic dialogue involving the United States, Japan, Australia and India as a way of trying to contain it.
Then there is the Taiwan Travel Act that Trump signed in March, encouraging more interactions between American and Taiwanese officials. Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade breakaway province that should be brought back into China.
Also, American officials have raised the prospect of imposing sanctions on Chinese senior officials and companies linked to allegations of human-rights abuses against Muslims in western China.
Now come reports that the Justice Department has ordered the state-run Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television to register in the United States as foreign agents.
“This is giving them a sense that the Americans are out to get them,” said Michael Kovrig, China analyst for the Crisis Group. “For China, the economic and security are inextricably linked.”
It was a refrain that Abigail Grace, who served as a China specialist on Trump’s National Security Council until earlier this year, heard nonstop on a visit to Beijing this month.
“Everyone I met with said that because the trade dispute was not a one-off quick win, then it must be part of a larger strategy,” said Grace, who is now at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Earlier this year at the Boao Forum, sometimes called China’s Davos, Xi presented himself as a champion of the global economy.
“Ours is a nation that has courageously engaged in self-revolution and self-reform . . . and kept overcoming systematic obstacles,” he said. China would lower tariffs on cars and safeguard the intellectual property of foreign companies, he said.
But it has made precious little progress on any of these goals. Trump might just help Beijing focus its mind.
“Now Trump has gotten China’s attention,” said Haenle, of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center. “The administration is talking more and more about structural issues, and I think there is a huge amount of support within the U.S. and around the world for pressuring China on these issues, and even China knows it needs to change.”
But for now, China is standing firm and refusing to be cowed by Trump, even as it runs out of options for responding — a direct consequence of importing from the United States much less than it exports.
China would continue to thrive, the state People’s Daily said in the recent commentary. With “Comrade Xi Jinping” and “the scientific guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” the country would have the confidence “to overcome all difficulties and obstacles.”