From Free Trade to Fair Trade: How the U.S. Political Elite Talked about Trade with China

Zhifan Luo, University at Albany

The rivalry between the world’s two largest economies and defense spenders, the U.S. and China, has transformed from merely a trade dispute into a clash of national defense and political values. In this chapter, I collected text about U.S. political elites’ policy regarding trade with China and examined the narrative and agendas in the text. I conduct a qualitative analysis of documents (i.e., paragraphs) that have been identified as related to trade with China. The goal is to specify narratives about free trade, trade restriction, and mixed agendas and examine how these narratives – and the political forces behind each of them – changed over time, as the U.S. experiencing a hegemonic decline with growing threats from China. The analysis finds that in the first two decades after the Cold War, the political elites in the U.S. formed a mostly bipartisan platform for U.S.-China trade policy-making. In that period, the division between the pro-trade and the pro-restriction narratives fell more between the presidency and the Congress than along the party line. Such bipartisanship largely extended into the 2000s, a decade during which China was granted the NTR status by the U.S. and admitted into the WTO. The free-trade narrative peaked in this decade, while there also emerged a narrative mixing a free-trade goal and a protectionist approach to achieve it. In the 2010s, the mixed narrative and the trade-restriction narrative gained momentum as the populist wing of the Republican Party dominated the stage of U.S.-China trade, culminating in Trump’s Trade War. These findings indicate that an external threat during a period of hegemonic decline may mitigate fragmentation and enhance cohesion among U.S. political elites. Meanwhile, populist forces set on fire as a result of internal inequality and loss of global domination could lead to new division within the elite group.

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 Presented in Session 198. The politics of markets