U.S. – China Trade War: The Reasons Behind and its Impact on the Global Economy

Close up of one hundred Dollar and 100 Yaun banknotes with focus on portraits of Benjamin Franklin and Mao Tse-tung/USA vs China trade war concept

By Kalim Siddiqui

This article attempts to provide a deeper explanation for the United States’ trade imbalances, which U.S. President Donald Trump has cited as a pretext to impose tariffs and catastrophic retaliatory measures while ignoring the structural weakness of the U.S. economy itself. Such unilateral action has a profound impact on the global economy and institutions such as the WTO. 


Initially, Trump targeted imports of steel and aluminium from several key trade partners, including the European Union and South Korea, and just recently, he imposed another series of protectionist measures that went beyond any previously seen in the post-war period. The reasoning given for imposing such high tariff duties is the U.S.’ perception of the “unfair” trade practices currently being enacted by China. China responded to this by adopting a tit-for-tat strategy of imposing tariffs on selected U.S. products. Since August this year, both countries have together imposed tariffs on $100 billion worth of goods and which will almost certainly escalate further with increased trade retaliation (Guardian, 2018).

An ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China would adversely affect global economic growth, and their unilateral actions on trade apparently seem to be designed to bypass the rules set by the WTO, and could thus have a serious impact on global trade and governance. It seems clear that the U.S. is purely diverting attention from its own structural problems, and which are ultimately themselves responsible for imbalances in trade. President Trump, however, is attempting to establish a (probably erroneous) link between rising U.S. imports and the decline in its manufacturing industries. 

Since August this year, both countries have together imposed tariffs on $100 billion worth of goods and which will almost certainly escalate further with increased trade retaliation.

The recent increase in import tariffs by the U.S. in its steel and aluminium sectors is claimed to be an important step towards helping its domestic steel and aluminium industries. President Trump imposed import duties of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium by invoking the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 that allows for the protection of domestic industries on the grounds of national security (Guardian, 2018). However, this act is in clear violation of the WTO’s multilateral trade rules – which the U.S. leadership itself help to negotiate – where then U.S. agreed that developing countries could reduce their import tariffs by a small proportion compared to more advanced economies worldwide (Siddiqui, 2016a).

This principle of non-reciprocity was accepted as the basis for tariff cuts at the WTO’s Doha Round negotiations (Siddiqui, 2015a). This unilateralism is seen as discriminatory against a number of countries that includes China, and which is a clear violation of WTO rules. It is inconsistent with the provisions of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU). Article 23(a) of the DSU is obligatory for every member, who is advised that rather than make a judgement on other acts, their grievances must instead be taken directly to the DSU. The WTO’s dispute settlement process has sole authority to adjudicate in, and to resolve, any dispute between members (WTO, 2015).

Please login or register to continue reading... Registration is simple and it is free!

About the Author

Dr. Kalim Siddiqui teaches International Economics at University of Huddersfield, UK. He is an economist, specialising in Development Economics and has written extensively on development economics, economic reforms as well as on the political economy of development. He may be reached at [email protected]



1. Fine, B. and A. Saad-Filho. (2017). “Thirteen Things You Need to Know about Neoliberalism”, Critical Sociology, 43(4-5): 685-706.

2. Girdner, E.J. and Kalim. Siddiqui. (2008). “Neoliberal Globalization, Poverty Creation and Environmental Degradation in Developing Countries”, International Journal of Environment and Development 5(1):1-27, January-June.

3. Guardian. (2018). “US on Brink of Trade War with EU, Canada and Mexico s tit-for-tat Tariff begins”, 31 May. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/may/31/us-fires-opening-salvo-in-trade-warwith-eu-canada-and-mexico.

4. McBride, J. (2017). “The US Trade Deficit: How Much Does it Matter?” Council on Foreign Relations, 17 October. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/us-trade-deficit-how-much–does-it-matter.

5. Siddiqui, Kalim. (2018a). “Imperialism and Global Inequality: A Critical Analysis”, Journal of Economics and Political Economy, 5(2): 266-291.

6. Siddiqui, Kalim. (2018b). “David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage and Developing Countries: Myth and Reality”, International Critical Thought, 8(3): 1-28, September.

7. Siddiqui, Kalim. (2017). “Financialization and Economic Policy: The Issues of Capital Control in the Developing Countries”, World Review of Political Economy 8 (4): 564-589, winter, Pluto Journals. DOI: 10.13169/worlrevipoliecon.8.4.0564.

8. Siddiqui, Kalim. (2016a). “Will the Growth of the BRICs Cause a Shift in the Global Balance of Economic Power in the 21st Century?” International Journal of Political Economy 45(4):315-338, Routledge Taylor & Francis.

9. Siddiqui, Kalim. (2016b). “A Study of Singapore as a Developmental State” in edited by Young-Chan Kim. Chinese Global Production Networks in ASEAN, pp.157-188, London: Springer.

10. Siddiqui, Kalim. (2016c). “International Trade, WTO and Economic Development”, World Review of Political Economy, 7(4):424-450, winter, Pluto Journals.

11. Siddiqui, K. (2015a). “Economic Policy: Sate versus Market Controversy” in edited by Adam P. Balcerzak. Contemporary Issues in Economy: Market or Government, pp.39-63, Torun: European Regional Science Association, Poland.

12. Siddiqui, Kalim. (2015b). “Trade Liberalisation and Economic Development: A Critical Review”, International Journal of Political Economy 44(3):228-247.

13. Siddiqui, Kalim. (2015c). “Perils and Challenges of Chinese Economic Development”, International Journal of Social and Economic Research 5 (1): 1-56.

14. Siddiqui, Kalim. (1998). “The Export of Agricultural Commodities, Poverty and Ecological Crisis: A Case Study of Central American Countries”, Economic and Political Weekly 33(39): A128-A137, 26th September.

15. Wolf, Martin. 2018. “What Really Went Wrong in the 2008 Financial Crisis”, Financial Times, 17 July, London. (accessed on 10 September, 2018.http://www.Wolf,Martin.FT.com.

16. World Trade Organisation (WTO). 2015. Ministerial Declaration Adopted on 4 December.  https://www.southcentre.int/wp…/2015/12/AN_MC10_4_Ministerial-Declaration.pdf. Also see the dispute settlement system of the WTO – legal text.https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/dsu_e.htm

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.