BEIJING AND WASHINGTON are both talking up progress by their trade negotiators as they each look to come up with a formula for avoiding the damaging consequences of the imposition of tariffs on US-China trade that will otherwise occur at the end of next week.
News that the Chinese team led by Vice-Premier Liu He will be extending this week’s two-days of talks in Washington can be read either way: that agreement is nearing and just needs a final push; or that it remains elusively far away.
On one superficial level, this Bystander believes, it is the former, but deeper down it remains the latter.
What is likely to be agreed by March 1, the deadline to conclude an agreement set by Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump over dinner at last autumn’s G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, is a framework for further talks with six tracks: currency, cyber theft and forced technology transfers, services, agriculture, intellectual property and non-tariff barriers.
Each track would have binding objectives in terms of structural economic change in China. In addition, there would be an agreement to cut China’s bilateral merchandise trade surplus with a number of immediate big-ticket buys of US goods and produce, notably soybeans, which had been a $12 billion a year sale for US farmers before the tariff tit-for-tat started. Energy and industrial goods will also be on China’s shopping list.
The sections in the agreement for the six tracks would have been called memoranda of understanding in the old diplomatic language. Donald Trump does not like the term, and slapped down the US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for using it. Trump is a ‘dealmaker’, not a memorandum of understanding sort of guy; and to be fair to the president, touting that he has secured the ‘greatest memorandum of understanding — ever’ just does not have the same ring as being able to boast of the making the ‘greatest deal — ever’.
Trump’s intent is to tie the big red bow on a deal at a meeting with Xi sometime after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi on Wednesday.
The six areas are all ones in which Beijing will be prepared to agree binding objectives. They are aligned with the structural changes it anyway needs to make to rebalance the economy. The sticking points are how far and how fast Beijing is prepared to go at this point, and, crucially, what monitoring and enforcement mechanisms it is prepared to accept.
Each of the six tracks has obstacles of differing degrees of difficulty to overcome. The currency one has already reportedly been settled. It was probably the easiest to tackle, given that China has a managed float for its currency in place and the yuan-dollar rate provides a clear and transparent measure, even if there is plenty of scope for argument over what constitutes a ‘fair-value’ rate.
On the other five, finding the right language that meets the Trump administration’s tough demands for structural change yet gives Beijing the room to soft-peddle has been proving as difficult as would have been expected.
The most progress has been made on intellectual property rights and improved market access; the least, on the role and practices of state-owned enterprises, subsidies, forced technology transfers from US companies operating in China and, thorniest of all, cyber theft of US trade secrets.
That last one goes to the heart of the issues between the two sides. If China is to succeed in ‘catching up’ with the US economy industrially and rebalancing its economy so the next phase of growth is driven by high-value manufacturing and services based on the next generation of industries, then it will need to acquire the technology to do so by fair means or foul and nurture the national champions to develop and exploit it.
Those priorities will not be given up lightly.
For Trump, a big political win on China, one of his core issues in the 2016 presidential election campaign, is essential going into his 2020 re-election bid. With the newly energised Democrats snapping at his heels, he needs headline concessions that sound grand and victorious to his electoral base, especially in the tightly contested states of the (formerly) industrial MidWest.
Xi, too, needs to demonstrate domestically that he has got the measure of Trump and that he is not yielding any sovereignty to Washington over the reform process. Any sign of the latter will be seized upon by his political critics.
So for both men, perceptions at home are critical. That is what an agreement at or around the end of the month will deliver above all.
Negotiating the details of implementation of what is agreed will take far longer. China will drag its feet on that to the extent that it can get away it until if and when US attention switches elsewhere whether under the current president or his eventual successor. Even a two-term Trump would be out of office ahead of the delivery year for Made in China 2025.
For that reason, this Bystander will be reading closely the details of the enforcement and monitoring procedures that are agreed.