Reimagining the US-China Relationship: Alternatives to Neoliberal US Trade Policy (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Griffin Grubb, Spring 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The U.S. – China trade war is the most significant economic conflict in recent memory. The outcome will determine the trajectory of American leadership and its role in the rest of the 21st century, as well as the consequences for the global economy. Under the Trump Administration, the trade war was characterized by tariffs on Chinese imports (and retaliation by Beijing). Within the current set of neoliberal trade policies across the Trump and Biden administrations, a common overarching issue emerges: the lack of worker protections due to an overwhelming corporate power system.

First, the Trump Administration’s trade policies hurt American workers, especially the tariffs that hit farmers the hardest. The use of tariffs aimed to decouple China’s economy from the United States. However, many American jobs are dependent on exports to China. The economic interdependence is reality and must be taken seriously. Second, competition with China does not mean the United States must adopt a Cold War, zero-sum strategic framework that aims to exclude China from the global and U.S. markets. Rather than seeking to disentangle these ties, both China and the United States must listen to the needs of Southeast Asian member states and the greater global market. Pursuing economic leadership in the Indo-Pacific region shall advance U.S. influence since many countries seek economic engagement with both the U.S. and China. Third, the Biden Administration’s trade policy falls short of the needed workers’ rights reforms to reimagine trade policy and the relationship with China. Trade policy must champion systemic reforms that center labor rights. The United States cannot repeatedly make unilateral actions such as export controls and trade tariffs that ultimately backfire, causing a reduction in U.S. security.