Doctoral thesis

The return of international politics - cooperation and conflict in U.S.-China trade relations

Imprimatur date2022-11-03
Defense date2022-09-20

The recent ruptures in U.S.-Chinese trade policy jeopardise bilateral trade cooperation and the continuation of the liberal international order. The trade war not only represents a fundamental departure from bilateral trade cooperation, but also from principles of economic openness, a hallmark of the liberal world order. Strikingly, the confrontation appears remarkably tenacious, as the U.S. animosity in policy and rhetoric towards China prevails. The tenet of the previous U.S. administration of “America First” persists with respect to China.

Understanding the causes for this decline of Chinese-U.S. trade cooperation is fundamental for International Political Economy (IPE). Bilateral trade relations have reached an unprecedented level of salience as economic exchange has become weaponised and involve complex trade-offs between economic welfare and security. As China’s economic strength expands, especially in relative terms to U.S. power, understanding the determinants of bilateral interaction between both powers becomes more crucial for U.S.-Chinese policy coordination, and, ultimately, global peace.

The current academic debate partially trails behind the political reality by not paying systematic attention to the renewed importance of relative international power considerations in U.S.-China trade relations. Some important contributions of the trade war reduce trade conflict to a function of domestic economics and politics. Whilst seminal in International Relations (IR) and some other and older IPE accounts, structural international political explanations are also important for understanding cooperative bilateral trade outcomes. Crucially, a decline in relative power implies withdrawing cooperation support. Such nationalistic power considerations are likely to gain more salience as China’s relative power compared to the U.S. increases.

My dissertation examines the consequences of international politics for U.S.-Chinese trade cooperation by exploring three sources of trade conflict from the perspective of the mass public: (1) expected power changes, (2) trade imbalances and (3) past broken trade promises. For the first and second study, I argue that the study of the influence of international power considerations needs to be expanded. With text analysis of news media articles and representative original survey experiments in both the U.S. and China, I systematically discover that the relative shift in power fundamentally threatens bilateral trade cooperation. Moreover, in a context of expected power change, trade deficits are increasingly perceived as fundamental weaknesses.

My findings underline how international power politics affect economic views in the specific U.S.-China trade context. My dissertation reveals that the power change raises the expectation of future losses for the declining power, whilst the rising power expects to benefit from the international order. Against this backdrop, I discover that losing relative power is associated with a higher aversion to trade deficits. However, even in this protracted power concern context, the results suggest that the perception of a reliable trading partner is crucial for bilateral cooperation support. Ultimately, my research implies that international power considerations are likely to intensify. Despite these structural power change forces, upholding international trade commitments and rules remains the best bet for reinvigorating support.

  • U.S.-China
  • Trade cooperation
  • Public opinion
  • Text analysis
  • Geopolitics
Citation (ISO format)
SCHWEINBERGER, Tanja. The return of international politics - cooperation and conflict in U.S.-China trade relations. 2022. doi: 10.13097/archive-ouverte/unige:165870
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Technical informations

Creation12/20/2022 9:22:00 AM
First validation12/20/2022 9:22:00 AM
Update time03/16/2023 10:17:51 AM
Status update03/16/2023 10:17:48 AM
Last indexation02/01/2024 9:21:23 AM
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