Alibaba founder Jack Ma predicts the US-China trade war could last 20 years

As the latest salvos were fired in the growing trade war between the United States and China, concerns continue to mount in the business community about just how long the conflict might endure.  Alibaba group founder and China's richest man Jack Ma recently spoke to an investor summit in Hangzhou, China regarding his thoughts on the direction the trade war may take.

In his speech, Ma said the trade war is "going to be a mess" and, regarding its potential duration, that it could last for "maybe 20 years."

Ma went on to compare the current trade dispute with the U.S. trade actions conducted against Japan in the 1980s, as Japan looked to be a potential challenger to the United States' economic ascendancy.

Ma theorized that the U.S is now setting its sights on China because China has become the world's second largest economy, stating: "This kind of thing happens.  It's very natural."


Jack Ma (file photo via Flickr).

What makes this trade war different from other trade disputes in the past?

Normally, trade war negotiations are extensively defined by the national interests of the two countries involved in the dispute.  This motivates the two parties to act quickly on behalf of industry and employees in their respective countries, to settle the dispute to both sides' mutual satisfaction.

In this instance, the trade war is not just between China and the United States; it is a conflict that is also defined by the personalities and the domestic interests of Chinese president Xi Jinping and U.S president Donald Trump.

As Jack Ma correctly pointed out, this trade war is not just about unfair trade practices or an imbalance in tariffs.  It's about the rise of China into an economic landscape that the United States has used its influence to effectively dominate for decades.

Journalists and policy analysts have mused that the current trade war is a modern example of a Thucydides trap.  A Thucydides trap is a theory based on the work of the ancient Greek historian of the same name, which states that a rising power causes fear in an established power, which escalates toward conflict.

In this instance, the role of the rising power is a resurgent China challenging the dominant superpower in the form of the United States.  What are some reasons why the trade war may continue to drag on? 

Xi Jinping and the Chinese government are unlikely to back down

Xi is not likely to make any sort of major back-down without equally large concessions from President Trump and the United States.  Considering that Xi has now been declared "leader for life," he can ill afford a publicly humiliating back-down as he continues to consolidate his power, especially to someone like President Trump.

President Trump's actions in the trade war enjoy an element of bipartisan support

President Trump's actions against China are one of the few policy moves of his administration that gain any level of approval from those on the other side of the aisle.

Senate minority leader Democrat Chuck Schumer, who has long pressed Trump to crack down on China, applauded the tariffs.

"The president's actions on China are on the money," Schumer said.  "China is our real trade enemy, and their [sic] theft of intellectual property and their refusal to let our companies compete fairly threatens millions of future American jobs.  While we await further details on this trade action, President Trump is right on target."

This type of support from a senior member of the Democratic Party likely only strengthens Trump's resolve that the U.S. can endure the economic pain and come out on top in this conflict.

Trump is not a traditional politician or seasoned political operator

Normally, in modern tit-for-tat tariff conflicts, political leaders are forced to the bargaining table by political and business leaders on both sides.  President Trump, on the other hand, is a maverick who believes he can achieve the best possible outcome for the American people in this trade conflict and is ultimately acting in the best interest of the United States.

President Trump has a tendency to heavily back his own viewpoint, rather than relying solely on a team of advisers.  This creates difficulty for the Chinese trade delegation, which is more accustomed to dealing with lifelong political operators and diplomats.

So where does that leave the trade war?

Both Xi and Trump have a large amount of domestic political skin in this particular high-stakes game.  Any major back-down for either side will be humiliating and damaging to that leader's domestic political standing.

The reality for observers and analysts of this trade conflict is that we don't know the exact reasons why it began.  If it were solely about unfair trade practices and tariff imbalances, then predicting the outcome would potentially be a great deal simpler.

However, the possibility that this conflict has arisen out of an attempt by the United States to maintain its economic ascendancy makes predictions about the trade war's outcome and duration a great deal more complicated.

If China and the United States continue to fail to find common ground on which a mutually acceptable trade deal can built, Jack Ma's prediction that the trade war could continue for years to come may end up being prophetic.

Tarric Brooker is a freelance journalist and free speech advocate.  He also runs a political and current affairs website at avidcommentator.com.

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