The Security Risks of a Trade War With China

Why the U.S. Should Be Wary of Economic Decoupling

The Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald is shown on patrol in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility in support of security and stability in the Pacific Ocean, August 2013. U.S. Navy via REUTERS

Trade tensions between the United States and China continue to rise. In June, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration announced that it would impose tariffs of 25 percent on $50 billion worth of Chinese exports, with the first wave targeting some 800 goods worth $34 billion. China pushed back with its own set of tariffs targeting the U.S. agricultural sector and industrial heartland. In response, Trump has reportedly ordered his administration to consider a 25 percent tariff on an additional $200 billion worth of Chinese exports. As the showdown escalates, many observers are understandably focused on the potential for a full-fledged trade war that could destabilize the world economy. But they should also consider second-order, longer-term implications—in the security realm. Up until recently, the two nations’ economic ties had served as an effective brake on escalating strategic distrust. A China less constrained by and invested in economic ties with the United States could pose a substantially greater challenge to U.S. foreign policy. For all the Trump administration’s frustrations with managing interdependence, the consequences of decoupling could mean even bigger headaches.


The United States buys more exports of Chinese goods than any other country. China, meanwhile, is the United States’ largest trading partner and the fastest-growing market for its exports. Yet neither side considers these deep, multifaceted trade links an unalloyed plus.

Trump often expresses irritation over the size of the U.S. trade deficit with China, but trade tensions between the two countries are rooted less in deficit figures than in high-tech competition. The United States sees China’s technological progress as a growing national security challenge. One of Trump’s top economic advisers, Peter Navarro, warned recently that “China’s investment in strategic technologies may ultimately pose the gravest danger to America’s manufacturing and defense industrial base.” He argued that “tariffs will form a critical line of defense against predatory trade practices China has used to the detriment of American industries.”

China, meanwhile, seeks to become a global leader in

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