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Towards Economic Decoupling? Mapping Chinese Discourse on the China–US Trade War

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Tremendous changes have occurred in China-US relations since Donald J. Trump took office in the White House, but the most significant event is the outbreak of the China-US trade war, whose unprecedented scale and impact has drawn wide attention in China and sparked considerable debate. This article aims to review the four main stages of this great debate on the China-US trade war among China’s influential intellectuals and prominent thinkers. It covers the three-year period since the beginning of the Trump administration. The initial argument among Chinese academics was whether or not there could ever be a trade war, which led to a dividing line between optimists and pessimists. Soon after, when China-US relations took a sharp downturn and a trade war seemed inevitable, Chinese scholars shifted their focus to reasons why the United States should wage a trade war against China. This culminated in three different perspectives embodied respectively in the structural conflict theory, institutional conflict theory, and the theory on exporting domestic problems. After China and the United States began slapping additional tariffs on one another’s exported goods, and with the flare-up of the Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation (ZTE) and Huawei incidents, the debate on how to respond to a trade war cleaved between the ‘whole nation system school’ and the ‘market reform school’. As to coping with the technology war, Chinese intellectuals were divided between the paths of ‘independent innovation’ and ‘open innovation’. More recently, in view of the many signs that the China-US trade war could continue indefinitely, and an economic decoupling of the two nations is no longer unimaginable, a fierce debate has arisen between those that advocate full preparations for such economic decoupling and those who insist on further links with the US economy. Although the main themes of the four stages of the debate differ somewhat, they share a certain degree of consistency as regards the conceptual pedigree of the debating parties. Their divergence derives, in essence, from different perspectives on such issues as state power versus market force, independence versus interdependence, and zero-sum competition of power versus win-win economic cooperation. This also exemplifies the competing views in Chinese academia on the classical political economy.


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This is the abstract of the journal article by Li Wei published in The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Volume 12, Issue 4, Winter 2019. Please click the download and read the full article.

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