Robert J. Samuelson: The Makings of a Trade War with China





[Robert J. Samuelson is a weekly columnist for the WaPo, writing on political, economic and social issues]

No one familiar with the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 should relish the prospect of a trade war with China -- but that seems to be where we're headed and probably should be where we are headed. Although the Smoot-Hawley tariff did not cause the Great Depression, it contributed to its severity by provoking widespread retaliation. Confronting China's export subsidies risks a similar tit-for-tat cycle at a time when the global economic recovery is weak. This is a risk, unfortunately, we need to take....

Less ideal and more realistic would be a replay of Smoot-Hawley, just when the wobbly world economy doesn't need a fight between its two largest members. Economic nationalism, once unleashed here and there, might prove hard to control. But there's a big difference between then and now. Smoot-Hawley was blatantly protectionist. Dozens of tariffs increased; many countries retaliated. By contrast, American action today would aim at curbing Chinese protectionism.

The post-World War II trading system was built on the principle of mutual advantage, and that principle -- though often compromised -- has endured. China wants a trading system subordinated to its needs: ample export markets to support the jobs necessary to keep the Communist Party in power; captive sources for oil, foodstuffs and other essential raw materials; and technological superiority. Other countries win or lose depending on how well they serve China's interests....

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