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This Wikipedia article dates the start of the U.S. China trade war to January 2018.

Link to Wikipedia.

Of course trade rhetoric about China probably dates back to the earliest days of the Trump campaign for the 2016 election.

Why did the administration wait until 2018 to elevate the trade war to the point of tariffs and trade negotiations when the administration had occupied the White House a full year earlier?

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In general, the things that I've seen on this have been speculative. The person who would know would be Donald Trump, but he is likely to answer politically. I.e. the reason that he would state if asked could be the one that is politically advantageous rather than the one that was most important in his thinking. That said, a quick search doesn't find even a political answer to that question. Perhaps no one has asked him.

There are a couple reasons that I've seen as speculation.

  1. In 2017, the United States was talking with China. They may have wanted to establish positions before moving on to punishments.
  2. In 2017, the US wanted China to intervene with North Korea to get North Korea to stop testing missiles. They may have prioritized that over trade issues.

In general, the approach in 2017 was to make nice with China. The 2018 approach came after that failed to produce the desired results.

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    It's quite possible that even Trump does not really know.
    – jamesqf
    May 12, 2019 at 16:47
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In part the timing is explained by the fact that in March 2018 is when the USTR formally concluded its section 301 investigation. As much as Trump might have liked to act sooner, and on some issues like immigration he did that, on this he went a bit more "by the book". I'm not entirely sure why. IIRC however, there was also some level of dissent in his administration. But those like Gary Cohn who are thought to have opposed tariffs left roughly after the first year.

N.B. Trump did do something spectacular early on wrt to trade too:

Many [USTR] staffers harbored hopes that Trump would put his own stamp on the TPP agreement and move ahead with it. Instead, Trump pulled out of the deal on the first business day of his administration, stunning USTR officials who had devoted years to hammering out its intricately balanced details.

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