Trump's elusive China trade deal

The Week Staff

The smartest insight and analysis, from all perspectives, rounded up from around the web:

Seeking to "overcome the impasse" on an "elusive" trade deal, President Trump last week suggested he was reluctant to alienate China by sanctioning officials involved in its Hong Kong crackdown, said Michael Bender and Chao Deng at The Wall Street Journal. Trump called the protests in the former British colony "a complicating factor" in the search for an agreement. "We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I'm also standing with President Xi," Trump said. "He's a friend of mine, he's an incredible guy." The warm words about Xi have not kept the president from moving the goalposts with "cliff-hanger tactics," said Ana Swanson at The New York Times. More than a month after Trump declared the U.S. and China had reached a historic "Phase 1" trade agreement, the two sides continue to negotiate. China reportedly had agreed to resume purchasing $20 billion in American farm products annually, but Trump "pressed his team to more than triple that figure" before settling on a demand for $50 billion. China wants the U.S. to scrap tariffs imposed since 2018, with a Dec. 15 deadline looming on a 15 percent tariff hike on "another $160 billion of goods." But the two sides can't even agree on where a deal signing should take place. And Trump's wavering has "made China wary of offering concessions, for fear that he will only demand more."

China feels little pressure to cater to Trump's brinkmanship, said Heather Timmons and Andrea Shalal at Reuters. Trump wants to secure a big announcement soon, "locking in big-ticket Chinese purchases of U.S. agricultural goods that he can tout as an important win." But "it's Trump who wants to sign these deals, not us," said one Chinese official. The difficulties in negotiating even a preliminary deal on tariffs and agricultural imports don't bode well for a far-reaching agreement covering issues like intellectual property rights. In fact, China's negotiators probably won't sign on to a more comprehensive deal "before the U.S. election, in part because they want to wait and see if Trump wins." Getting to a Phase 1 agreement "might not mean much," said Jill Disis at CNN. Rolling back tariffs and resuming agricultural trade just brings us back to where we were before the trade war began. Said one trade expert, "we're just climbing out of a hole we dug ourselves."

This was a battle the U.S. got into "without buy-in from allies," said Nathaniel Taplin at The Wall Street Journal, and now we're paying the price. The main effect of the trade war on China has been to shift Chinese exports to other markets. China "exported $19 billion less to the U.S. in the third quarter of 2019 than a year earlier, but nearly $17 billion more to Europe and East Asia." Really, Trump doesn't need to worry so much about China retaliating if he takes a strong stand on Hong Kong, said Noah Smith at Bloomberg. China has already used the trade weapons in its arsenal. It's created "an economic catastrophe for many farmers" in the U.S., and imposed $135 billion worth of tariffs on U.S. goods. The U.S. can certainly afford to take a moral position on Hong Kong, because as far as trade is concerned, "the damage has already been done."

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