Trump’s 'phase one' trade deal with China is a phantom

Rick Newman
·Senior Columnist

On Oct. 11, President Trump announced a “phase one” trade deal with China. A month later, it looks more like a phase zero deal.

There is, in fact, no trade deal with China. Trump’s negotiators haven’t even agreed among themselves what they want from China, making it a three-way negotiation between China and two factions in the White House.

Trump keeps pumping out smoke, saying at a speech in New York City on Nov. 12, “we’re close. A significant phase one trade deal with China could happen. It could happen soon.” But Trump has been peddling false hope about a China trade deal for nearly a year, and like a desert mirage, this alleged deal is always just out of reach. Last December, after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said, “It’s an incredible deal. It goes down, certainly, if it happens, it goes down as one of the largest deals ever made.” If you’re wondering what deal that was, well, yes—there was no deal.

A major tell on the hollow of Trump’s trade taunts is dissension in the White House. Hard-liners such as White House economist Peter Navarro want tariffs on Chinese imports indefinitely and a permanent decoupling between the U.S. and Chinese economies. Moderates such as National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin want to wind down the trade war and get back to normal. Trump himself is a hard-liner who’s in a weak negotiating position and can’t get everything he wants because it would hurt the U.S. economy too much, if he did.

Markets are still optimistic about some kind of de-escalation, because … Trump said so? Stocks have drifted up to new record highs lately, in part because of happy feelings on trade. But it’s worth pointing out that there have now been 13 negotiating rounds between U.S. and Chinese diplomats, and several claims of a breakthrough by Trump. The only thing that has come of it all has been escalating U.S. tariffs matched by intensified retaliation by China.

Deutsche Bank chief economist Torsten Slok lists the trade war as the top threat to the economy, while pointing out that it has depressed not just manufacturing activity in the United States, but also service sector growth, business spending and CEO confidence.

Trump’s China tariffs are now costing the U.S. economy about $75 billion on an annualized basis, according to the American Action Forum. Tariffs due to hit a new class of Chinese imports Dec. 15 would raise the annual cost to around $100 billion. Retaliatory measures by China cost the U.S. economy at least $87 billion more. Farmers and factory workers are bearing the worst of it.

Timing a deal around impeachment

There’s been one small breakthrough. Trump called off a tariff hike that was supposed to go into effect Oct. 15, as a contribution to the “phase one” agreement. He had already raised tariffs by 25% on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports, and threatened to raise it to 30% on Oct. 15. He didn’t. But the 25% tariff is still there.

In this photo taken Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, visitors chat near American and Chinese flags displayed at a booth for an American company promoting environmental sensors during the China International Import Expo in Shanghai. Washington and Beijing have agreed to cancel tariff hikes as their trade negotiations progress, a Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman said Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Nov. 6, 2019, visitors chat near American and Chinese flags displayed at a booth for an American company promoting environmental sensors during the China International Import Expo in Shanghai. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

A Chinese trade spokesman recently said the two sides had agreed to roll back tariffs, if a bunch of things fell into place. The U.S. side gave conflicting reactions to that statement, with Trump himself finally saying there’s been no deal to scrap tariffs. There is a deal. There isn’t a deal. There is a deal. There isn’t a deal. The only constant in the whole trade debacle is American shamology.

The thinking inside the Beltway now is that Trump may want to ink a starter deal with China around the time Congressional impeachment hearings are likely to culminate, to distract from that lousy news. "We think that impeachment politics will drive President Trump to reach a trade deal with China to give voters something tangible to coalesce around,” consulting firm Sandhill Strategy told clients recently. “A late 2019 deal would likely time well to correspond directly with timing of a House impeachment vote. The president could juxtapose a deal with China as a policy accomplishment against Democrats’ political ‘witch hunt’ against him.”

That would only work, however, if Chinese President Xi Jinping agrees to go along with Trump’s timeline. And as impeachment intensifies, Xi may feel emboldened to demand more from his embattled American counterpart. “Phase one” could be a long time coming.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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