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The confidence, even a certain complacency, that had developed around the likelihood of a successful conclusion to trade talks between China and the United States has given way to tension and uncertainty. On Sunday, President Donald Trump, blaming Beijing for reneging on previously negotiated commitments, tweeted a threat to raise an existing 10 percent tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports to 25 percent on Friday, with 25 percent tariffs on additional Chinese goods coming "shortly."

News reports identify the Trump administration's specific complaint as China's alleged going back on its promises to put U.S.-requested policy changes into law. For their part, Chinese sources have told Western media that Beijing interpreted Trump's complaints about purportedly tight Federal Reserve monetary policy as a sign of economic weakness that China could exploit.

It's anyone guess what will come of the current meetings in Washington between China's trade delegation and Trump's team. What should not be in doubt, however, is that throughout the entire bargaining process with Beijing, the administration has undercut its position by attempting to wage simultaneous tariff battles with other countries. As Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics has shown, Trump's tariffs now cover 50.5% of Chinese imports - but also 7.3% of imports from Canada, 2.5% of imports from the European Union, 9.6% of imports from South Korea and 3.8% of imports from Japan.

This unforced error is doubly regrettable because Trump arguably had the upper hand going into his talks with China. The Chinese economy is more dependent on exports to the United States than vice-versa, and China's growth rate has been slowing, while the U.S. economy (contrary to Trump's inappropriate and ill-founded gripes about Fed policy) is creating jobs at a brisk pace. In a world where Trump is deeply unpopular, his complaints - shared by previous U.S. presidents - against China represented a rare case in which other nations conceded him the moral high ground. A savvier president would take advantage of that.

The negotiations with China may yet reach a mutually beneficial conclusion, or they may collapse. Either way, Trump will have defied a lesson of history: Multiple-front wars are the hardest to win, whether they are of the military kind or trade wars. Fighting without allies is harder still.

Commentary on 05/12/2019

Print Headline: Can't fight a five-front war

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