The trade war improves China's economic practices
China engages in unfair economic practices. The trade war serves as a deterrent because it hurts the Chinese economy. China will want to change its practices to stop the current harm and prevent future harm to their economy.
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The rise of the Chinese economy has fueled fears of unfair competitive practices that threaten businesses abroad; this is the premise of President Trump’s rhetoric behind the trade war. By punishing these practices, the United States hopes to force China to abandon them.
China engages in unfair economic practices. These practices sit on a spectrum; it’s helpful to disambiguate between the three types: Actions which are generally considered illegal; these include the outright theft of intellectual property, as with Chinese military officers hacking into American firms in 2014. Actions that are considered unfair, if not strictly illegal, such as demanding that foreign firms gift technology in exchange for market access, or historically artificially devaluing its currency. Actions which represent intense forms of (legal) competition. The U.S. hopes to dissuade China from engaging in unfair practices. Waging the trade war against China will squeeze Chinese firms, hurting their profit line. In turn, this has political ramifications for the Chinese government. Consequently, China will be deterred from engaging in unfair practices in the future, stepping in line with established international norms of commerce. Fair competition from China is better for the world. It allows overseas businesses access to Chinese markets on better terms and prevents them from being unfairly out-competed on the global stage.
This argument makes two key assumptions. The first is that Chinese firms will be significantly hurt by the trade war. This is not true if China wins the trade war. Suppose for the sake of argument that Chinese firms will be significantly hurt by the trade war, forcing a conciliatory stance with the United States. Even if that is true, the second assumption is that China will improve its economic practices more broadly. This may not be the case. At best, China might negotiate a deal with the U.S. to treat U.S. firms fairly. Other nations lack the leverage to conduct the same punitive trade war with China.
[P1] The trade war with China will hurt the Chinese economy. [P2] To stop and prevent the Chinese economy from being hurt, China will roll back its unfair economic practices. [P3] China rolling back its unfair economic practices is good for the world.
Rejecting the premises
[Rejecting P1] The damage to the Chinese economy may not be sufficient; this depends on the outcome of the trade war. [Rejecting P2] China may respond to the trade war by rolling back unfair economic practices against the United States, but not more generally.