Deal or No Deal in U.S.-China Trade Talks

U.S. negotiators are heading back after an extended trade negotiation with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing. While there’s been no formal agreement yet, both sides are expected to make public announcements on Thursday. If talks had gone badly something would have come out in the official Chinese state-run press by now, so all signs point to some kind of deal. Will it, however solve any of the more difficult challenges in the relationship?

Trump wants to see markets rebound. Chasing the sugar high of a stock jump is hardly a trade policy, and a terrible negotiating position. This essentially gave China added negotiating leverage knowing he is eager to settle. That doesn’t bode well for any substantial movement on the most difficult issues facing U.S. exporters — forced tech transfer, non-tariff barriers, and intellectual property theft. That was the whole reason Trump launched his ill-thought out trade war in the first place by ratcheting up tariffs on Chinese goods.

If there’s no movement on those hard issues, what was the point? China announced they’re going to be buying U.S. soybeans again, but China was already buying U.S. soybeans before Trump’s tariffs. That’s not a concession. 

China also announced that U.S. rice would be allowed into their market. While this is new, market access isn’t likely to dent the trade deficit as U.S. rice prices are significantly higher than other suppliers to China, most notable from Southeast Asia.

Other Chinese government moves included reduction in auto-tariffs, already offered to the rest of the world. While some legal reforms have been mentioned, enhancing IPR protection for example, changes in law are often not fully implemented. Given the inherently political nature of China’s judicial system, companies have little recourse.

These “structural” reforms tend to be the most difficult, often edging too close to issues that party hardliners in Beijing hold dear (e.g. favorable government and financial support to state-owned enterprises.) They’ll most likely kick the can down the road like they have for years and wait out what’s left of the Trump presidency.

That’s the crux of these negotiations. Are Chinese officials convinced that Trump will hold his line or will he cave to his own domestic economic pressures? It’s looking like Trump’s eagerness for a win will trump his own hardliners who are pushing for China to fundamentally change the way they do business. While that’s a laudable goal, they’ve used the wrong tool for this kind of heavy lifting.

Adding to the uncertainty, no senior-level negotiator was present for the talks. This was more of a working level negotiation and all of the familiar figures in Washington need to give their input including U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer, Treasury Sec. Mnuchin, and Advisers Navarro and Kudlow. Interestingly it was mainly the Agriculture Deputy Secretary who spoke to the press, not the USTR Deputy Secretary, who ostensibly led the negotiations.

So what did Trump get out of all this turmoil? Hard to say until tomorrow, and there’s still three weeks to the March deadline, but there will be plenty of spin about the great, great, concessions that no U.S. president has ever gotten from China before. 

Expect an announcement highlighting all the U.S. goods China is going buy as a result. For comparison, from Jan. to Oct. 2018 China bought $102.5 billion in U.S. goods. Over the same period in 2017 the number was $104.5 billion (U.S. Census data for 2018 is currently available through Oct.) If the structural issues aren’t resolved, don’t expect too much difference in overall U.S. exports, especially as China’s economy slows down.

Markets react quickly to news, and then adjust to facts. Trump might still get his temporary stock bump, but a sugar high never lasts. China is playing the long game and a fickle market movement is about as small a win as it gets.