What is a tariff?
A tariff is a tax on imported goods. Tariffs can target specific goods imported from all nations or can target all goods from a single nation or group of nations. Any combination of the aforementioned applications of tariffs is also possible.
What are economic sanctions?
Economic sanctions are legal restrictions prohibiting both private and public sector trade between nations or entities within a targeted nation (including individuals). Sanctions can also serve to systematically cut off the access of nations, factions within a nation and individuals within a targeted nation from the banks and financial services of the nation levying the sanctions.
Sanctions for Russia – Tariffs for China
The US has just passed new sanctions targeting Russian corporations, Russian public sector assets and individuals in Russia, including both those that work for the government and those whose business is entirely in the private sector. The US justified these new sanctions by saying that they are motivated by “a range of malign activity around the globe”, allegedly conducted by Russia.
This came shortly after the US passed over $60 billion worth of tariffs on a variety of Chinese imports due to what Donald Trump calls the “unfair” practices of the Chinese government. Donald Trump has threatened a further set of anti-Chinese tariffs covering $100 billion worth of imports. In both cases, neither the United Nations Security Council has condemned Russia for “malign activity” nor has the World Trade Organisation stated that China is in violation of its rules.
The difference between tariffs and sanctions are merely a matter of scale. In reality, both serve to economically punish a would be and/or actual economic partner for reasons which are ultimately political in terms of motive. Rather than work with Russia and China on both economic cooperation and on international security coordination, the United States and some of its subservient western allies have decided to undermine both China and Russia in areas where both are seen to have achieved an objective level of excellence.
Because Russia’s highly effective multipolar style of diplomacy and its effective security cooperation initiatives throughout the world have been largely successful in restoring Russia’s superpower status, the US and its allies seeks to curb Russia’s geopolitical influence through sanctions. Likewise, because China has objectively achieved excellence in industrial production and innovation, the US seeks to curb China’s economic influence.
The effects are largely the same on a global scale. First of all, far from “intimidating” Russia or China, sanctions and tariffs only serve to anger two superpowers who are set to retaliate against the US with sanctions and tariffs of their own. At a diplomatic level, sanctions and tariffs only serve to reinforce the already incredibly strong Sino-Russian partnership, while simultaneously sowing suspicion of the US in Beijing, Moscow and in other capitals where leaders fear they could be next on the US tariff/sanctions hit list. This serves to increase the prestige of China and Russia as benign superpowers while reinforcing the reality that the US is more of a bully than a potentially respectful partner.
In the US itself, those who do business or seek to do business with China and Russia will suffer economically and at a political level, their economic liberty will be artificially restricted by a government that claims to oversee the most ‘free’ economy in the world.
In terms of security, the supposed fight against international terrorism has become factionalised and sectarian, as any genuine effort to combat terrorism across the globe would necessitate cooperation between all three superpowers. While Russia and China continue to collaborate on security issues, the US and its NATO partners (with the exception of Turkey) have decided to act in a hostile manner to Russia when it comes to fighting terrorism. In respect of China, the US has also sought to undermine the Beijing authored peace process for Myanmar and Bangladesh.
All competition is unfair
Except for in the organised competitive sports that allow for a tie or draw (most soccer-football matches for example), competitions are always “unfair” as someone always wins and someone always loses. This inherently implies inequality as after a game like the NFL’s Superbowl, one side gets the winner’s trophy and the other side walks away with the status of being a loser.
For nations that see geopolitics and global economics as necessarily competitive, they ought to prepare themselves for disappointment unless they can be assured they are the master of all major international fields, something which is virtually impossible.
Donald Trump is the perfect embodiment of an attitude that sees multilateral international relations as a competition. It is no wonder therefore that Trump thinks that China and Russia are not “playing fair”. This is because when it comes to economic modernisation and excellence, China is generally ahead of the US and when it comes to conducting productive diplomatic efforts and fighting terrorism, Russia is generally ahead of the US.
Win-win versus zero zum
Because Trump and his colleagues have defined the world in the zero-sum terms of competition, they are losing by the rules they themselves set. For China and Russia however, geopolitics and economics are not about competition but about a win-win strategy that seeks to give all sides in an economic deal or security arrangement a chance to reap benefits without any one side gaining a unique or overwhelming advantage. This does not only apply to Russia and China’s relationship to non-superpower countries, but it also applies to their relationship with the US.
Prior to Trump’s de-facto declaration of a trade war with China due to the imposition of punitive tariffs, China stated that while it was not violating any World Trade Organisation rules, Chinese officials would nevertheless sit down with their US counterparts to work out a revision of existing bilateral trading regulations in order to create a win-win environment for both sides. The US refused China’s offer and instead imposed tariffs. Now China says that it will use all options at its disposal to fight back against a trade war of Donald Trump’s making.
Likewise, Russia has stated that it is happy to cooperate with the US against terrorism in the Middle East, but instead, the US has continued to act unilaterally while continually criticising Russia for eliminating terrorists who are allied with the US in their illegal war against Syria.
By turning situations where cooperation was welcomed by China and Russia into zero-sum competitions, the US has taken a gamble and has lost. Now there are clear winners and losers and just as Russia has helped Syria to win its war against terrorism, so too will China certainly come out on top in a trade war that China did not launch nor seek, but one which it is prepared to fight and win nevertheless.
The childish attitude that defines everything in geopolitics and economics as a competition is one that is ultimately regressive in terms of America’s own internal development. It is this attitude that has seen the US use its military to commit war crimes against nations with non-US centred economic strategies, it is this attitude which has fomented a famously hostile environment between workers and managers in US businesses (one which does not exist in China, Japan or to a large extent in Germany) and it is this attitude which results in illogical and undiplomatic statements being spewed in the faces of representatives of fellow superpowers whether at the UN or WTO.
A mature person is someone who seeks to avoid conflict whenever possible, while also being prepared to resist any form of aggression should it arise from any source. This is as true on an individual level as it is at a geopolitical level. Only cowards, lunatics and the stupid seek out conflict and ultimately those who seek competition are the same as those who seek conflict.
The US had a chance to work in a mature way with both China and Russia, instead it has decided to compete in a battle it cannot win. As the old schoolyard expression goes “it’s two against one” and the two almost always win in such circumstances.