Special Forum

In Trump-era frictions between the United States and China, issues of trade and international economic relations and maritime rights and security—ones with significant legal dimensions—emerged early on and often have taken center stage. A favorite theme for candidate Trump was that China was “raping” the US economy and acting in ways that were “unfair” and “illegal” in trade and international economic relations—a polemical and shorthand version of familiar criticisms that encompassed charges that China was not living up to international legal obligations, principally those associated with China’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).1 In one of the more controversial episodes from the transition period, President-elect Trump responded to Beijing’s criticism of his telephone call with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen with a tweet that set forth his pique at China’s behavior in both economic and maritime areas: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the United States doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”2 Here, too, Trump’s comments resonated with legal questions: currency manipulation and market access are cognizable claims under WTO law and at times have figured prominently in trading partners’ complaints about Chinese laws and policies. In maritime and security affairs, Trump’s words resonated with the notion that China was transgressing legal prohibitions against exercising sovereign powers in foreign or disputed territories or acting in ways that seriously undercut prospects for resolving disputes peacefully—a position made potent and salient by the international arbitration panel’s decision, a few months earlier, in favor of the Philippines in its case against China concerning rights in the South China Sea.

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