APB: A Dangerous Game of Chicken

As the “tit-for-tat” trade fight between the US and China escalates, Donald Trump is likely to find that he doesn’t “know China” the way he once thought.  When he said that during the presidential campaign, he based his understanding of China on one thing: the high rent in Trump Tower that he had exacted from a Chinese bank. Today, he may still assume he can win a game of chicken by upping the ante until the Chinese eventually fold.

But Trump and his crew don’t understand Chinese thinking.  They don’t respond well to being bullied, least of all now that they have a means of fighting back.  China’s commerce ministry said as much in a statement right out of Chairman Mao’s playbook. Mao had often said when dealing with “US imperialism”: “We will not attack unless we are attacked,” Mao often said. “But if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.” A ministry spokesman said today (April 6): “The Chinese way of doing things is like this: We do not pick a fight, but if someone does pick a fight, we will fight resolutely. The Chinese have always been very serious in handling these matters. We mean what we say.” And the commerce ministry added in a formal statement: “On the issue of Sino-US trade, the Chinese position has been made very clear. We do not want to fight, but we are not afraid to fight a trade war.”

Trump and other US officials are saying the US isn’t engaged in a trade war with China. But China’s press is already using that term. Perhaps there won’t be a trade war; Trump may simply be employing his usual bluster to force more favorable terms of trade. He risks stepping over the line, however. Trump needs to understand that the US no longer faces the weak China of Mao’s time.  They mean what they say, and they have the resources to fight back.

This is a time like no other when negotiating differences is important.  Playing chicken is a fool’s game, especially when the US and China need one another on important international issues, starting with North Korea.

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  1. In Negotiating 101, I think they teach you not to threaten dire consequences and then publicly announce that you don’t necessarily mean to enforce the dire consequences. Kudlow has just done this. The theory that Trump is being strategic by acting in a crazy fashion is almost certainly wrong. He is just ill informed and playing a short term domestic political game.


  2. Good post. The Chinese way of thinking sounds like a mirror image of Trump, who repeatedly says he

    fights back hard when attacked. So what is the worst-case scenario? I think US loses most.

    Thanks for the tutorial. Both this post and the last one should be combined to a published op-ed that can

    promote your book.

    mm (Futurist Emeritus)

  3. Well said, Mel. People in all corners of the globe are rattled by the current state of affairs. When world order is at stake, it is not the time to waste words-as Trump is wont to do-so I appreciate your terse and accurate description of the looming trade war. We think of the many times economic conflict has turned bloody, and should surely consider the case of Japan in 1941, after the US sought to bully that emerging Asian power. As for the depth of China’s resolve when under attack, a Beijing insider once commented to me that the country doesn’t want a fight but if backed into a corner, it is entirely capable of the unimaginable. Whether or not this current confrontation over trade is that serious, I don’t like it that Trump plays games this way. Even if he is in his deal-making way simply “upping the ante,” no good will come from continuing to escalate tension with the dragon. There is very real potential for long-lasting, generation-scale, harm to peaceful international relations in all this.

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