U.S. Economic Sanction Threats Against China: Failing to Leverage Better Human Rights


  • Authors' note: We are indebted to Susan Allen, Steve Chan, Jay Dow, Melanie Taylor Drury, Pat James, Jonathan Krieckhaus, Sheldon Simon, Matt Stevenson, and Steve Walker for their helpful comments. All remaining errors are, of course, our responsibility. Data are available from the first author's website: http://www.missouri.edu/~drurya.


Recent literature argues that economic sanction threats should be more successful because both sender and target have an incentive to resolve their dispute before entering into costly sanction. Testing this assertion is somewhat problematic because threats are essentially nonevents—sanctions that were never deployed. This paper quantifies the U.S. threats to condition or revoke China's most favored nation status and shows that Washington's threats were not only ineffective but also counterproductive—Chinese accommodations decreased when the U.S. made acute threats but increased when Washington was cooperative. We conclude that for highly salient issues, sanction threats tend to be ineffective.