Does Trump really want a trade deal?
Tom Fowdy

Editor's note: Tom Fowdy, who graduated from Oxford University's China Studies Program and majored in politics at Durham University, writes about international relations focusing on China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The latest round of American tariffs on the remaining 300 billion U.S. dollars of Chinese imports came into effect on Sunday. These tariffs mean that every single item imported from China to the United States will now be subject to a levy. Economists have warned that the impact will see price rises for American consumers by potentially 1,000 U.S. dollars a year, with China having supplied the United States with the overwhelming majority of everyday items.

Despite the obvious risks of doing such, Donald Trump has repeatedly defended his decision to escalate tariffs. On Twitter Sunday night, he came out with some curious and contradictory remarks, claiming that the devaluation of China's renminbi would first mean the impact on consumers would be softened but then moving to assert that the tariffs were "absolutely worth it" and that "we don't want to be servants to China" and "this is about American freedom! There is no need to buy everything from China."

CGTN screenshots of U.S. President Donald Trump's tweets.

CGTN screenshots of U.S. President Donald Trump's tweets.

Based on these comments, it is time to question whether the president is truly serious about a deal to end the trade war with China. Increasingly, he is relying on broader ideas of geopolitical confrontation and hardliners to justify his escalation and brush off the damage to America's economy. Yet, despite his comments, negotiations between the two countries are ongoing.

However, given the trajectory of what we have experienced so far, it seems unlikely that Trump will settle for compromise given not only his recent decisions, but also that the invocation of such rhetoric makes it considerably harder to back down unless "favorable conditions" are met. In this light, the hawks may have won and will do all they can to uphold this as the new normal.

It is a given now that the trade war will hurt America. The question is now, by how much? And what political implications will it have? Trump's behavior appears to have shifted along these lines. He attaches a lot of importance to the economy, and many (including myself) assumed that he would be prepared to sacrifice this for his 2020 election. 

In earlier stages of the conflict, his modus operandi was to dismiss signs of an impact. He claimed the U.S. was making billions from tariffs, he claimed the economy was the best ever and advisers such as Peter Navarro repeatedly stated that China was bearing the brunt of it all, and that people had nothing to worry about.

However, Trump has again and again made the decision to escalate tensions. In doing so, he has become caught in a crosswind between economics and politics; but the latter appears to be more powerful. The fact that he has received zero scrutiny from other politicians over his course of action, and seemingly unlimited backing from congress, appear to have changed his incentives into noting that to be confrontational with China, is actually more politically valuable than to settle things. When he made concessions on Huawei, it provoked outrage. If he were to make a trade deal on pragmatic terms, he will also be accused of betrayal by hardliners.

The shop window of a Huawei store in Beijing, July 1, 2019. /VCG Photo

The shop window of a Huawei store in Beijing, July 1, 2019. /VCG Photo

Given this, as the impact of the trade war has become impossible to deny and media scrutiny over the economy has increased, Trump has steered away from attempting to play down the impact and instead has sought to find a scapegoat, as well as justify it on other things.

First of all, as the media started to talk about a slowdown and fears of a recession, he began frequently blaming economic problems on Federal Reserve policies, accusing them of being the ones undercutting his economic success. Now however, as the trade war escalates even further, and thus the impact cannot be denied, he has a new line: that this is a struggle for American freedom and thus it is a price worth paying.

In doing so, the president now mirrors the voices of hardliners who believe damage to the American economy is a necessary sacrifice to pursue geopolitical confrontation with China. Thus, he is potentially stepping aside from his usual concern for business and the economy, enabled by the fact the trade war is not weakening him politically in any way, because of bipartisan support and hysteria in Washington against Beijing.

Of course, negotiations are still ongoing, but one must surely ask now what the end game is. How can the president make such remarks, which galvanize the U.S. system in favor of his policy, and then expect them to suddenly accept a trade deal? This would be political self-destruction on his behalf. But then again, the fact he has been unwilling to compromise and settle the dispute numerous times when he had the chance hardly shows him as a fair player. In this case, a deal has never looked less likely than it does now. It's either everything Trump wants, or nothing.

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