Donald Trump's trade war took a big step forward on Friday, with the White House announcing the imposition of tariffs against China, which were met with immediate retaliatory measures from Beijing. Ahead of the deadline, there was still some hope that China would satisfy the American president's wishes, but there was no deal, and Trump followed through on his threat.
At the heart of the dispute is an awkward dynamic: no one seems to understand the administration's demands, which makes it difficult for Chinese officials to try to make the Republican happy. Politico had a good piece a few weeks ago, noting that Beijing is "increasingly mystified about what Trump really wants," convinced that the administration doesn't really have a strategy.
"We appeal our American interlocutors to be credible and consistent," Li Kexin, minister at the Chinese embassy in Washington, said in a recent speech -- suggesting China sees Team Trump's posture as neither credible nor consistent.
All of which sets the stage for a strange trade war that doesn't appear to have a clear purpose, beyond reflecting the whims of an amateur president who doesn't understand trade nearly as well as he thinks he does. The New York Times' Paul Krugman explained the other day:
Trump's tariffs are badly designed even from the point of view of someone who shares his crude mercantilist view of trade. In fact, the structure of his tariffs so far is designed to inflict maximum damage on the U.S. economy, for minimal gain. Foreign retaliation, by contrast, is far more sophisticated: unlike Trump, the Chinese and other targets of his trade wrath seem to have a clear idea of what they're trying to accomplish. [...]
Is there a strategy here? It's hard to see one. There's certainly no hint that the tariffs were designed to pressure China into accepting U.S. demands, since nobody can even figure out what, exactly, Trump wants from China in the first place.
China's retaliation looks very different. It doesn't completely eschew tariffs on intermediate goods, but it's mostly on final goods. And it's also driven by a clear political strategy of hurting Trump voters; the Chinese, unlike the Trumpies, know what they're trying to accomplish:
Or put another way, one of the biggest flaws in Trump's plan is that Trump doesn't appear to know what he's doing.