In government offices and think tanks, universities and state-run newsrooms, there is an urgent debate underway about what many here see as the hidden motive for Washington’s escalating trade war against President Xi Jinping’s government: A grand strategy, devised and led by Trump, to thwart China’s rise as a global power.
“The Trump administration has made it clear that containing China’s development is a deeper reason behind the tariff actions,” said He Weiwen, a former commerce ministry official and now a senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, an independent research group filled with former bureaucrats.
These sentiments were echoed by many of the more than two dozen current and former government officials, business executives, state-affiliated researchers, diplomats and state-run media editors interviewed for this article. Most requested anonymity to speak their minds about sensitive matters.
A common suspicion ran through the conversations — that the tariffs are just a small part of Trump’s plan to prevent China from overtaking the US as the world’s largest economy. Several people expressed concern that the two nations may be heading into a long struggle for global dominance that recalls the last century’s rivalry between the US and Soviet Union.
“The trade war has prompted thinking in China on whether a new cold war has begun,” said An Gang, a senior research fellow at the Pangoal Institution, an independent research group in Beijing whose experts include former government officials. The dispute, he says, “now has military and strategic implications” — reflecting concern among some in Beijing that tensions could spill over into Taiwan, the South China Sea and North Korea.
The general pessimism is a major shift among China’s elite, many of whom had initially welcomed the rise of a US president viewed as a transactional pragmatist who would cut a deal to narrow a $375 billion trade deficit for the right price. Now, with tariffs on $34 billion of goods already in effect and duties on another $216 billion in the pipeline, a majority saw no quick fix to a problem that is starting to rattle the country’s top leaders.