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Retaliation and Resilience: China’s Economic Statecraft in a Taiwan Crisis

Although China is developing capacities that are making its economy more resilient to Western sanctions, reciprocal economic statecraft measures would exact a heavy financial toll on the G7, China itself, and the global economy.

This report is a joint project of Rhodium Group and the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.


Beijing has watched carefully as Western allies have deployed unprecedented economic statecraft against Russia over the past two years. Our report from June 2023 modeled scenarios and costs of Group of Seven (G7) sanctions in the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. However, that report largely left unanswered a critical question: How would China respond?

This report examines China’s ability to address potential US and broader G7 sanctions, focusing on its possible retaliatory measures and its means of sanctions circumvention. We find that reciprocal economic statecraft measures would exact a heavy financial toll on the G7, China itself, and the global economy. Crucially, however, we also find that China is developing capacities that are making its economy more resilient to Western sanctions.

We consider the use of economic statecraft tools in two main scenarios: a moderate escalation over Taiwan limited to the United States and China that remains short of military confrontation, and a more severe scenario with G7-wide restrictions targeting Chinese firms and financial institutions. For each, we consider China’s potential responses to adversarial economic statecraft in terms of retaliatory action (including restrictions on economic activity within China and China’s potential actions abroad) and attempts to circumvent G7 sanctions.

We arrive at seven key findings:

  1. China’s economic statecraft toolkit is quickly expanding. In the past five years, China has used a range of formal and informal statecraft tools, including tariffs, import bans, boycotts, and inspections, to punish firms and countries for their stances on Taiwan and other sensitive issues. In anticipation of the potential for more extensive foreign sanctions, China has also been legislating to equip itself with an expanded toolkit to respond. This scope of options distinguishes China from Russia, which had prepared for additional sanctions in a less organized fashion, and presents a significantly more difficult challenge for Western economic statecraft.
  2. China’s statecraft toolkit is heavily weighted toward trade and investment rather than financial statecraft. We assess that in a moderate scenario where US exports to China are curtailed, more than $79 billion worth of US goods and services exports (such as automobiles and tourism) would be at risk. In a higher-escalation scenario involving G7-wide sanctions against China, around $358 billion in G7 goods exports to China could be at risk from the combination of G7 sanctions and Chinese countermeasures. On the imports side, we estimate that the G7 depends on more than $477 billion in goods from China which could be made the target of Chinese export restrictions. Regarding investment, at least $460 billion in G7 direct investment assets would be at immediate risk from the combined impact of G7 sanctions and retaliatory measures by Beijing. By comparison, China has limited financial tools available to directly influence G7 economies. What restrictions China imposes on capital outflows are likely to be driven more by financial stability concerns rather than attempts to coerce.
  3. China will face steep short- and medium-term costs if Beijing deploys economic statecraft tools. China would face high economic and reputational costs from using economic statecraft tools, especially in a high-escalation scenario. While export restrictions would be one of China’s most impactful economic statecraft tools, it would also be among the costliest options for China. Over 100 million jobs in China depend on foreign final demand, and nearly 45 million of these jobs depend on final demand from G7 countries. In a high-escalation scenario, most of these jobs would at least temporarily be put at risk. Even in a moderate-escalation scenario, China’s viability as a destination for foreign investment would dramatically decline, with implications for China’s exchange rate and domestic financial stability.
  4. China may prefer to avoid tit-for-tat retaliation for strategic reasons. As a result of the major costs to its citizens, China is unlikely to follow a tit-for-tat approach but will target sectors where it can inflict asymmetric pain, particularly through the use of export controls or trade restrictions on critical goods such as rare earths, active pharmaceutical ingredients, and clean energy inputs (e.g., graphite). China’s political objectives in a Taiwan crisis are unlikely to be served with a completely reciprocal response to G7 sanctions.
  5. China will likely attempt to divide the G7 and thereby limit the impact of sanctions. In scenarios where the United States alone imposes sanctions on China, Beijing has more opportunities to circumvent sanctions using targeted retaliatory measures against the United States, but not other G7 countries. The G7 has varied relations with and commitments to Taiwan, and a significant proportion of firms, particularly in Europe, continue to see China as a critical export destination. In addition, China may use positive inducements to encourage countries across the Group of Twenty to stay neutral. Beijing may also leverage its large bilateral lending with a range of emerging and developing economies to attempt to circumvent or not implement G7 sanctions.
  6. China is seeking to create resiliency to sanctions by developing alternatives to the dollar-based financial system, including renminbi-denominated transaction networks. Renminbi-based networks are never likely to replace the US dollar-denominated global financial system. However, the gradual expansion of these networks can help Beijing find alternative mechanisms for maintaining access to financing and trade transactions even in the event of far-reaching Western sanctions or trade restrictions. A rapidly growing number of domestic and cross-border payment projects are being designed with the possibility of Western sanctions in mind.
  7. The timing of any crisis can significantly alter the impact of statecraft tools, for both the G7 and Beijing. Western efforts to de-risk and shift supply chains in the next five years may reduce Beijing’s “second strike” statecraft capacity over time. At the same time, China’s renminbi-based financial networks will expand in scope and liquidity, providing Beijing with more options to mitigate Western sanctions.

Retaliation and Resilience: China's Economic Statecraft in a Taiwan Crisis

Our joint report with the Atlantic Council's GeoEconomics Center evaluates how China is developing capacities that are making its economy more resilient to Western sanctions, and how reciprocal economic statecraft measures would exact a heavy financial toll on the G7, China itself, and the global economy.

Read the full report


The prospect of a crisis over Taiwan has generated intense discussion in recent years, as other unthinkable scenarios in global affairs have become depressingly manifest. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presented the United States and its allies with a need to quickly escalate economic sanctions and other tools of statecraft against Russia as part of a broader political response. As tensions in the Taiwan Strait have risen, the policy community began asking whether similar tools could be used to deter China in a Taiwan crisis scenario. Senior leaders in China increasingly reference risks from Western sanctions in policy remarks, and Beijing has reportedly conducted its own assessments of China’s vulnerabilities to Western economic sanctions.

As tensions have risen within the US-China bilateral relationship, policymakers and analysts have started to actively discuss the potential use of sanctions, export controls on critical technologies, and China’s retaliatory responses. These economic statecraft tools are now being considered as options within a broader multilateral strategy toward China, without fully considering the consequences for cross-strait stability or the global economy. Over the last two years, economic warfare has become more plausible, even if military engagement still seems remote.

In June 2023, Rhodium Group and the Atlantic Council GeoEconomics Center published a report that found that the G7 would likely consider a wide range of economic measures to deter or punish China in a Taiwan-related crisis scenario. While that report highlighted what tools might be considered and their direct costs to the global economy, it largely set aside questions about China’s own economic statecraft tools and responses. This report aims to fill that gap and discuss China’s potential responses to G7 sanctions or other tools of statecraft.

While still extremely costly in economic terms, these tools are nonetheless likely to be considered in a crisis since the costs of war are far higher. But unless the US-China political tensions over Taiwan can be managed, these lines between economic and military warfare will be blurred in any crisis scenario, with economic statecraft tools appearing as plausible and manageable responses.

This is exactly why understanding China’s potential responses to US and allied statecraft is so important. Understanding China’s capacity for economic coercion and circumvention can help refocus policy debate around credible and effective deterrence of both broader military conflict and the steady escalation of tensions from more limited crisis scenarios. Just as theories of nuclear deterrence account for the concept of second-strike capabilities, so too must we consider economic retaliatory measures in assessing the deterrence character of sanctions. Recent actions by Beijing to establish export controls on critical raw materials and other critical inputs reveal that Beijing is practicing and refining its use of economic leverage, but the contours of China’s ability, willingness, and channels for action are not well understood.

Related work on the costs of a Taiwan crisis

A February 2024 Atlantic Council policy brief by a senior US official (at the time out of government) with deep experience in this domain outlined seven principles for the effective use of economic statecraft. While these principles focus on US options, the framework can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of China’s policy instruments.

Designing and implementing a set of economic statecraft instruments in a Taiwan crisis scenario to achieve political objectives requires clarity on the trade-offs involved among these principles, and where benefits will outweigh costs. In a Taiwan crisis, decisions will need to be made quickly, making it critical to understand China’s potential response. While China’s retaliatory tools can inflict significant short-term economic pain, and China’s leaders may not be considering the same principles as outlined in the table above, Beijing will also struggle to mount an economic statecraft strategy that is both sustainable and effective in limiting G7 policy choices toward China. This study aims to improve understanding of the uses and limits of China’s statecraft tools, as well as the potential costs of escalation, in order to make the commitments from both sides to deescalate in a crisis far more credible.

For the purposes of this report, we are limiting the measures discussed to explicitly economic tools and sources of economic power, even as we are aware that any crisis scenario would also include consideration of other nonmilitary options such as cybersecurity-related measures or disinformation campaigns, as well as military coercion below the threshold of war. Conventional wisdom assumes that China’s response would be coordinated and centralized, free from the democratic factors that constrain US and G7 action, including rule of law and separation of authorities across different branches of government and agencies. This study questions some of those assumptions, as Chinese bureaucratic interests are likely to clash on the question of the country’s need for US dollar inflows in the event of economic sanctions, as well as China’s economic interests in imposing restrictions on trade.

In chapter one, we build a framework to categorize the channels of economic interaction at risk from Chinese economic statecraft. In chapter two, we explore how each of these tools might be used at different levels of escalation, up to the level of retaliation against a major G7 sanctions program. In chapter three, we review China’s capacity to circumvent sanctions and statecraft using financial networks outside of the US dollar system.

This paper, and our prior work on sanctions options in a Taiwan crisis, focuses primarily on China and the G7. A forthcoming paper will explore the role of the G20 in a Taiwan contingency.

Retaliation and Resilience: China's Economic Statecraft in a Taiwan Crisis

Rhodium’s Daniel Rosen, Logan Wright, and Charlie Vest all participated in the launch of a new major study from Rhodium Group and the Atlantic Council on China’s retaliation and resilience during a potential Taiwan crisis.

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