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‘Bring Me Tariffs’—How Trump and Xi Drove Their Countries to the Brink of a Trade War

from The Wall Street Journal,

In the corridors of power, officials from the U.S. and China maneuvered and often miscalculated.

On Sept. 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping convened an emergency meeting of two dozen top officials. The day before, the U.S. had taken Beijing by surprise by imposing sanctions on a research unit of the Chinese military, shortly after announcing tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports. The Chinese didn’t know how to respond. Mr. Xi arranged the meeting so hastily that three of the seven members of the group’s Standing Committee—China’s final arbiter of power—couldn’t attend because they were traveling, say individuals with knowledge of the discussions. The party members, who gathered at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing, eventually concluded that a forceful counter was essential. China canceled impending trade talks in Washington, suspended a meeting with U.S. military officials and summoned the U.S. ambassador in Beijing to complain. “There was no point in talking when the entire atmosphere was so poisonous,” recalls a senior Chinese official. In an interview Monday, President Trump responded: “I just want our country to be treated fairly.”

That the two countries arrived at this point, despite years of tension, wasn’t inevitable. Rather, it played out this year in the corridors of power in Washington and Beijing, with both maneuvering—and often miscalculating. China’s leaders misread Mr. Trump as a businessman first, rather than the politician whose fixation on trade had helped carry him into office. They mistook his Treasury secretary as the key interlocutor, not the White House hard-liners who truly had his ear. And they failed to recognize the growing resentments in the U.S., and the world, about their own winner-take-all approach to trade and economics.

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