Could Donald Trump’s War Against Huawei Trigger a Real War With China?

As relations between the United States and China worsen over the months ahead, could Beijing decide to try to make Taiwan the solution to its advanced semiconductor problem?

The centerpiece of the Trump administration’s “tech war” with China is the campaign to prevent its national champion Huawei from becoming the dominant supplier of 5G systems to the world. The Administration’s objective, as a former Trump NSC staffer described it, is to “kill Huawei.” And China has heard that message. As Huawei’s legendary CEO Ren Zhengfei told the leadership of the company in February, “the company has entered a state of war.”

After months of diplomatic efforts to dissuade other nations from buying their 5G infrastructure from Huawei, the administration delivered what one official called a “death blow.” On May 15, the Commerce Department banned all sales of advanced semiconductors from American suppliers to Huawei. It also prohibited all sales of equipment to design and produce advanced semiconductors by foreign companies that use U.S. technology or intellectual property.

In the five months between now and the election, could the U.S. attempt to enforce that ban become a twenty-first-century equivalent of the oil embargo the United States imposed on Japan in August 1941? While many people may not remember what happened, and while it was certainly not what the United States intended or anticipated, that action precipitated Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor four months later–and America’s entry into World War II.

The thought that the United States and China could find themselves in a real, hot, bloody war will strike many readers as inconceivable. But we should remember that when we say something is inconceivable, this is not a claim about what is possible in the world, but rather about what our minds can conceive. In the summer of 1941, the possibility that a nation less than one-quarter the size of the United States would launch a bolt from the blue against the most powerful nation in the world was beyond Washington’s imagination.

To punish Japan for its military aggression against its neighbors in the late 1930s, the United States had initially imposed sanctions, and later an embargo on exports of high-grade scrap iron and aviation fuel to Japan. When these failed to stop its expansion, Washington ratcheted up the pressure by including essential raw materials such as iron, brass, and copper. Finally, on August 1, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the United States would embargo all oil shipments to Japan.

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