China has been comparing the current trade war with the US to the Korean War back in the 1950s. That’s according to a Globaltimes front page article written by Yang Sheng over the weekend, which features a Korean War documentary broadcast by state media the previous week.
“Trade war with the US at the moment reminds Chinese of military struggles between China and the US during the Korean War (1950-53),” says Sheng.
Like the 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
That was “an important battle in the war that marks the complete withdrawal of US-led UN troops from North Korea” he observes.
The article quotes comments on the documentary from readers spreading over the Internet. Like “We are not afraid of the US, not in the past, not today;” and “You can only reason with the US and get a fair deal after you prove you cannot be defeated. Otherwise the deal will never be fair.”
But comparing today’s trade war with a real war that happened at a different time is a bad idea, for a couple of reasons.
One of them is that the context, the conditions and circumstances, are different nowadays than back in the early 1950s, ideologically, politically, and militarily. Besides, the decade that followed the Korean War was a period of prosperity for America, which maintained an economy open to international trade – while it was a period of misery for China, which closed its economy to international trade.
Comparing the trade war with the Korean War “only makes sense if you understand that Chinese believe the Korean war was an attempt by the U.S to invade China,” says Tom Elliot, International Investment Strategist at deVere Group, an independent financial advisory organization. “So its suggesting that China is a ‘victim’ of aggressive U.S trade policy.”
Elliot thinks its more nuanced than that. “The U.S isn’t trying to invade China today, just limit its rise as a global economic rival and military rival in the Pacific. This means that genuine grievances against China’s trade practices become confused with geo-political rivalry (notably over tech). But there are plenty of genuine grievances, given the state subsidies and board-room interference in Chinese companies.”
Then there’s the plain truth that trade wars are economic wars rather than real wars. This means that they don’t have human casualties on both ends that can never be recovered. They don’t have bridges and buildings demolished in a simple strike, either, costly to rebuild. They just have economic losses that can eventually be recovered once they end.
Still, trade wars can lead to real wars, if they fuel nationalistic sentiment that turns trade from a non-zero-sum game to a zero-sum game, supporting andreinforcing old ideological divides and animosities that spread beyond trade. Like the old divides in the South China Sea, which China now claims as its own sea, and wants to write its own navigation rules for.
The trouble with that grandiose claim is that it pits China against its neighbors — the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. And against the naval forces of US, Japan, France, the UK, and Australia, which seek to enforce freedom of navigation in the vast trade waterway.
That’s an accident waiting to happen, and the prospect of a real war.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time seeing a trade war has been compared to a real war. Back in the 1980s, American media compared Japan’s trade war with America with the attack on the Pearl Harbor.
That didn’t help the two sides end the trade war, however. What did help was concessions that allowed both sides to save face—something that could help this time around.