Over decades, trade transformed China into a major economic power with extensive commercial links throughout the world. By 2012, China had become the largest trading partner of 124 countries, well exceeding the comparable figure of 76 for the United States. But as trade remade China, in the process China also remade world trade. It began with China’s emergence as the center of global supply chains, then again with its massive infrastructure program that drove global demand for commodities like iron ore, copper and coal, and most recently by Beijing seeking new export markets outside and within Asia in response to the U.S. trade war.
China’s rise was made possible by its integration into a rules-based international system. Competitive pressures and sensitivities, however, strained relations with many of its key trading partners, especially when Beijing used its economic leverage for strategic interventions throughout Asia and selectively in Europe, Africa and Latin America. Yet China is not alone in using its economic clout for political purposes; the United States, too, has levied sanctions on countries like Iran and Venezuela and used punitive trade measures against China and other nations. Though their interventions differ in nature, the global trading system is ironically now being undermined by the coercive actions of its principal creator and its major beneficiary.