Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Ming Xia


John Torpey

Committee Members

John Torpey

George Andreopoulos

Subject Categories

American Politics | Asian Studies | Comparative Politics | Inequality and Stratification | International Relations | Models and Methods | Political Theory | Quantitative, Qualitative, Comparative, and Historical Methodologies | Sociology of Culture


China, Japan, International Political Economy, Constructivism, Habermas, Critical Theory


This dissertation analyzes punitive trade conflicts between the U.S. and two trading partners: China and Japan. Punitive trade conflicts can be defined as trade wars between two states, retaliatory tariffs, or other forms of conflict, e.g. preventing the acquisition of foreign assets or sanctions for an undervalued exchange rate. I will examine several trade conflicts between the U.S. and Japan in the 1980s and several trade conflicts between the U.S. and China from 2001 to the present. This study is situated within a larger debate concerning the resolution of four theoretical "puzzles" in political science. The first concerns the dispute between liberals and realists in IR theory and has been resolved through hegemonic stability theory. The second puzzle concerns the determining force of domestic and international politics and has been resolved through second image-reversed theory. The third puzzle deals with the dispute between rationalists and more sociological interpretations of action and has been resolved by the constructivist paradigm in political science. The fourth puzzle is still unresolved and concerns the relation between ideas and institutions. Attempts to examine the independent causal force of ideas in the "new institutionalism" of sociology and political science have failed, as well as, derived methodological approaches like historical institutionalism and rational-choice institutionalism. I adopt a Habermasian perspective that analyzes the intersubjective construction of meaning in trade discourse. I do this through a kind of “metadiscourse” that categorizes speech acts that constitute trade discourse and reconstruct the “validity claims” they are based on. I argue that systemic demands for trade protection and the deep framing of free trade ideology in the U.S. inevitably leads to irrational punitive policies preventing much needed structural economic reform. Protectionist framing of trade conflicts results in “systematic communicative distortions”: 1) lack of alternatives for dealing with trade conflicts other than punitive policies; 2) a divided Left that cannot unify around a substantive critique of right-wing economic policies; 3) the necessity of the construction of an existential threat to the U.S. in order to initiate a response—all of which lead to policies that punish trade partners.