Trade Policy as a Tool for Coercion

The ongoing trade war between the US and China has highlighted, once again, how trade policy can be deployed as a tool of coercion. Whether it will be effective is not something that I know enough about. But what interests me is this: what are the conditions under which bilateral trade policy can be used as a tool for coercion?

The zeroth condition is that there must be a substantial trade relationship between the to-be-coercive state and the to-be-coerced state. Failing this condition, trade can at best be used as a tool for inducement but not coercion. For example, India cannot use trade as a tool for coercion with Pakistan because there is barely any trading relationship between the two states.

The next condition is that the coercive state must be an overwhelmingly large market compared to the coerced state. Product bans and raising tariffs can be potent tools only if the losses incurred to the coerced state are significant. It is precisely because of this condition that helped imperial China intimidate many of its small neighbours. The message to all its tributary states was clear and consistent across centuries: we have everything in abundance here. It is you who needs access to our market. So, pay tributes and kowtow to the Emperor or you shall never have trading rights.

Robert Blackwill & Jennifer Harris have earlier described how Russia has repeatedly used trade as a tool for coercion against its smaller neighbours.

In the recent past, Georgian wines, Ukrainian chocolates, Tajik nuts, Lithuanian and even American dairy products, and McDonald’s have all fallen afoul of sudden injunctions… While dealing a significant blow to the Ukrainian economy, Moscow’s geoeconomic moves served, first, to remind Ukraine— and others in the region— of the consequences of decreasing ties to Russia in favour of the European Union; second, to reinforce Russia’s role as an economic regional hegemon; and third, to prevent the continued expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to Russia’s borders. Facing Russian threats on countless levels, Ukraine halted its plans to sign deals with the EU at the November 2013 Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius. [War by Other Means, Blackwill & Harris]

The third condition is that the coercive state should have a bilateral trade deficit with the coerced state. This is counterintuitive — most people regard trade deficit as a liability rather than an asset. But it is this deficit which lends a dimension of intimidation to trade policy. This is precisely the reason why the US could use this tool in the first place against China. There are a range of goods on which the US runs a bilateral deficit with China.

My contention is that the presence of all three conditions is necessary for the use of trade policy as a tool for coercion. Seen from this lens, the US trade war against China satisfies conditions one and three but does not meet condition two. Hence, its effect on China is likely to be limited.

In general, trade policy’s effectiveness as a coercive tool additionally depends on what is being demanded from the coerced state. It also depends on the ability of the coercing state to incur the losses resulting from retaliatory actions by the coerced state. 

PS: Read Anupam’s piece that warns about the economic losses emerging out of protectionist policies.