China: a Trade War is "like a drinking contest at a fraternity"


China is beginning to realize that trade war isn’t really war. It’s more like a drinking contest at a fraternity: the game is less inflicting harm on your opponent than inflicting it on yourself, turn by turn. In trade wars, nations impose burdensome import tariffs on themselves in the hope that they’ll be able to stomach the pain longer than their competitor.

Why play such a game? Because a carefully chosen act of self-harm can be an investment toward a worthy goal. For example, President Reagan’s arms race against the Soviet Union in the 1980s was in some sense a costly self-imposed tax. But it turned out the U.S. could bear the burden better than the Soviets could—Uncle Sam eventually out-drank the Russian bear and won the Cold War.

The U.S. will win the trade war with China in the same way. The PBOC’s statements show that the Chinese understand they are too vulnerable to take very many more drinks. The only question is what they will be willing to offer Mr. Trump to get him to take yes for an answer. No wonder Beijing has ordered its state-influenced media to stop demonizing Mr. Trump—officials are desperate to minimize the pain when President Xi Jinping has to cut the inevitable deal.

The drinking-contest metaphor takes us only so far. The wonderful thing about reciprocal trade is that it is a positive-sum game in which all contestants are made better off. If the conflict forces China to accept more foreign investors and goods, comply with World Trade Organization rules, and respect foreign intellectual property, it may feel it has lost but will in fact be better off. With this openness, both economic and political, China could spur a decades long second wave of growth that would bring hundreds of millions still living in rural poverty into glittering new cities.It took Nixon to go to China and show it the way to the 20th century. Now, through the unlikely method of trade war, Donald Trump is ushering China into the 21st century.
Comment: Images: Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark - in that character's own drinking contest!

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