He ascribes the responsibility of conflict to the United States, which is now designating China as its "number one competitor". According to him, in the Clinton era, China was positioned as a "strategic partner"; under president G.W. Bush, as a "responsible stakeholder" ; and the previous Obama administration sought to build a "partnership of mutual respect and mutual benefit".
Among his list, only the last designation attributed to the Obama administration is accurate. No US administration has ever signed on to a "strategic partnership", while a "partnership" was only mentioned once by Secretary of State Warren Christopher. In 1996, during his visit to Shanghai, a Chinese banner hailing a "strategic partnership" was indeed on display. Barack Obama used the two words together in a radio interview on the eve of his first presidential visit to China in November 2009.4 The terms have never been used again. As for "responsible stakeholder", it was crafted by Robert Zoellick, former US trade representative and World Bank president, as an exhortation to China. It was aspirational and never an actual descriptor, much less an official term.
On July 11, 2018 – one day after Donald Trump announced further tariffs of 10% on 200 billion USD worth of imports from China – another think tanker goes further: The US is conducting both a "trade war", to gain commercial benefits, and a "strategic war", to prevent a further rise of the Chinese economy.5 The second goal in fact takes precedence. The author, however, identifies a key American weakness: "the existence of interest groups influences policies, with conflicts between their interests and the US strategic goals". Advising Chinese concessions aimed specifically at US multinationals, the author is confident that China "can win the trade war".
China’s political system will prevail over democracy
This political economy argument will soon turn into a political argument on China’s systemic advantage: A People’s Daily op-ed by a researcher within the Ministry of Commerce compares China’s "long-term persistence in liberating and developing social productive forces" with the "changes in the national policy line after each election of political parties in the United States".6 He is clearly not impressed with the latter, and emphasizes the superiority of the Chinese system: "democratic centralism can absorb wisdom from all quarters and make efficient decisions".7
On August 10, 2018 – three days after Trump announced a 25% tariff increase on 16 billion dollars of Chinese goods – reassurance to the Chinese domestic audience is in order: another political economist mentions the limited US-China trade to GDP ratio, and therefore the low impact of American trade tariffs.8He shows more concern regarding the reduced openings for Chinese investment in the US, although in his view this also hurts the Trump administration’s quest for direct foreign investment.9
A month after the US announced – on September 24, 2018 – a coming rise from 10% to 25% of tariffs on 200 billion of Chinese goods, Seeking Truth (Qiushi), the Party’s authoritative ideological magazine, will publish a 4000+ character piece listing all the reasons why China must prevail in the long term.10 The article cites every possible argument, and repeats the standard mantra about "turning a crisis into an opportunity". China’s output of 220 industrial products ranks first in the world.11 In the same breath, the publication boasts that China’s GDP remained on the 6.7-6.9% growth path.
This is about "struggle" (douzheng, 斗争), and a "more important" argument for the author is that "the Chinese people have cultivated an indomitable spirit of unity and struggle in the historical process of standing up, getting rich and self-strengthening". Politics now prevail over economics, and the trade conflict has been elevated to a "struggle", in other words a war.
A search for deeper explanations
In the year that followed, the trade conflict with the US had its sudden ups and downs, essentially orchestrated from Donald Trump’s Twitter account. The tone will remain militant and political. It was also clear by that time that China had to move beyond its initial assessment of Donald Trump as a businessman practicing the art of the deal, or the simplification that he is backed by conservative hawks who want to contain China. One easily imagines the search for explanation going on as Donald Trump, repeatedly, returns to the trade conflict position while talking of his "friend" Xi Jinping. In this renewed search for an explanation, and perhaps for a paradigm that would enable better management of the conflict at the political level, two different views emerge, which we shall call the "expert" and the "red" views.
At this point, it is clear that in-depth research has been conducted in China about the roots of the Trump administration’s trade offensive, and not only by current intelligence efforts. In the "expert" camp, we single out one explanation of the rationale behind the trade conflict by Zhong Feiteng, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).12 Drawing from multiple cases, it is likely that the article is in fact the product of a team research. Its originality lies in the emphasis on the domestic base of support for Donald Trump and the connection with his stand on international economic policy and foreign policy. Using data from value chains in Sino-US trade flows, the paper explains that American companies derive more profit than their Chinese counterparts from these flows: therefore, if American foreign policy followed economic "realism", it would not resort to the "trade bullying" of China. But the root of current American foreign policy is not economic. Trump’s rewriting of globalization (rather than retreating from it) is based on the perceived need of his lower- and middle-class supporters, and they do not coincide with the interests of "big capitalism" or the international values of the upper classes.Our source goes on: "the Chinese media have misunderstood the nature of the Trump administration". It quotes Robert Keohane: "the main challenges to foreign policy are domestic".