New Book ‘Trade War’ Examines Causes, History Of Conflict Between US, China


With no resolution in sight for the trade war between the United States and China, a new book from a University of Kansas international trade law expert examines where the conflict may lead and its consequences thus far while also providing a critical historical and legal analysis of how it started.

“Trade War: Causes, Conduct, and Consequences of Sino-American Confrontation” by Raj Bhala, Brenneisen Distinguished Professor of Law at KU, is a full-length legal and interdisciplinary analysis of the conflict. While the trade war officially started in 2018 when then-president Donald Trump placed tariffs on Chinese imports, its roots stretch back many decades. Solutions are scarce, confounding presidents, dictators, scholars and policymakers alike. Bhala provides an in-depth look at the sources, nature and scope of increasingly fraught relations between the two countries. For his part, he has been studying the relationship for decades.

“In 1982 I made my first visit. China was still emerging from Mao’s leadership and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution,” Bhala said. “I later researched and wrote about China’s reemergence, including its 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, and – as a visiting scholar at Hong Kong University – the currency manipulation controversy. There was tremendous optimism that WTO entry would lead to political liberalization, and the handover of Hong Kong back to China might even be a reverse takeover. But as the years wore on and Xi Jinping took power, those hopes were disappointed.”

“Trade War,” available from Carolina Academic Press, details the conflict chronologically in three parts: tariff and non-tariff measures and future battles. Over the book’s 22 chapters, Bhala documents the history of the conflict, including legal and economic wrangling that led to America’s imposition of tariffs in 2018 and China’s counter-retaliatory measures – all of which continue to this day. The author wrote that while that action could be considered the first shots in the conflict, numerous presidents have been unable to solve trade issues with China. The book opens with a quote from President Joe Biden on China’s capacity to reshape the world order and one from China’s president on that nation’s rise.

“You’re not going to see a new China policy, if at all, until well into 2025. China policy hasn’t really changed under President Biden, with the exception of style and a more dignified approach,” Bhala said. “Whatever you think of him or his policies, President Trump recognized China’s industrial and trade policies and intellectual property piracy were not acceptable.”

Yet, Bhala’s opening quote from President John F. Kennedy, warning against demonization of peoples, also frames the book.

The book’s second part details non-tariff issues in the trade war. They include investment, financial and data decoupling. Part three covers human rights battles in the trade war, most notably, China’s aggressive approach to Hong Kong, and threats to Taiwan.

The final part of “Trade War” is devoted to future battles and offers competing characterizations of the conflict.

“The countries have within their power to choose if this is a forever trade war that could devolve into a shooting war, or if they want to step back and start solving, one by one, these economic and trade issues,” Bhala said. “As a lawyer, obviously that is my preference. To do that, I think it requires a calming of rhetoric and detailed, technical give-and-take.”

The book does not advocate for either nation’s position in the conflict and explores disagreements from both American and Chinese perspectives. Bhala examines the position of third-party nations such as India as well.

“India has long-standing strong ties to both the United States and China. And India does not view itself as a deputy sheriff for the U.S.,” Bhala said. “India sees itself not as picking sides but as a problem solver. I try to make clear how India views itself as a rational bridge between the two.”

Bhala recently discussed the book at an event sponsored by KU’s Center for East Asian Studies, and he will make a presentation at the International Bar Association Annual Conference in Paris next month as well.

In academia, the book could serve as a complement to Bhala’s four-volume set “International Trade Law: A Comprehensive Textbook.” Beyond the classroom, the book could be of interest to lawyers, policymakers, economists, financial market professionals, international business leaders or anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of the most pressing challenge in the political economy of the 21st century.

“We’re not going to get anywhere with continued insistence on the righteousness of either side’s cause,” Bhala said. “There is nothing ad hominem in this book. I would like to help people understand this conflict and help lawyers and those in power to step back, address and solve Sino-American relationship problems one at a time.”

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