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U.S.-China Trade Talks Could End. The Trade War Won’t.

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Those moves are at best neutral for American businesses—many are directly negative—but since they also hurt China, they count as a win for those who believe Chinese economic growth can threaten American supremacy. “We didn’t allow the Soviet Union to grow off of our markets and challenge us,” Michael Stumo, CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, told me. His group advocates for U.S.-based businesses and positions itself against the free-trading Chamber of Commerce. Stumo sees China as an economic predator, if not on the level of the Soviet Union quite yet, then at least headed there. He supports the administration’s trade policy, but would rather have no deal with China than a bad one. And even if the talks fail, something useful has come of it. “I suspect the achievement was bringing together the more hawkish and the more dovish within the administration, who got firsthand experience with dealing with the slow-walk game of China,” Stumo said.

Trump’s election in 2016 coincided with political changes in China that have made many Americans fearful. The trade team has drafted off that sentiment as it pursues a deal. “Hang tough on China,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted at the president Sunday. Schumer knows which way the wind is blowing. Former Vice President Joe Biden said last week that China is “not competition for us.” His opponents pounced. “Within 24 hours, Biden’s remarks had been reshaped into a kind of gaffe,” wrote reporter Dave Weigel in The Washington Post. Even if talks collapse, Stumo sees the change in tone as a win.

China-watchers have noticed a change in tone outside of Washington. “One indication how much China has changed is that the people who know China best—the China scholars—have turned so negative on China,” Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, told me. She wrote a dissent last year to a lengthy report about the danger of Chinese influence operations in the United States, as The Washington Post reported. “I think we’re going about this competition by becoming more like China rather than a better version of ourselves,” Shirk said.   

Lighthizer’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story. Commentators have speculated that his reputation would fall if the deal collapsed. But his career as a negotiator within and outside the administration suggests a different reading. If any hawk can wring concessions from China, it’s Lighthizer. Failure of the China talks would prove no one can do it, because China is fundamentally at odds with the U.S. That shift would set up a new dynamic with China: a relationship in which the hawks feel unbound to do what they deem necessary to protect the United States. And for a lifelong pessimist like Lighthizer, that might be something to smile about.

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