This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP on 6/24/19 and has been updated below.
Update: According to news reports (SCMP/Politico) Trump and Xi have tentatively agreed to a trade truce in the run-up to their Sat. 6/29 meeting at the G20 in Osaka, Japan. Preliminary press releases reportedly indicated that the U.S. would not impose new sanctions on an additional $300M in imports from China.
Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are finally meeting on Saturday at the Osaka G20 Summit. For those hoping that a resolution to trade tensions is near at hand, however, it is best to lower expectations now.
Neither side is itching for a compromise that could be easily interpreted as weak or conciliatory. Quite the opposite. If there was a meter measuring market pain for both countries, it has not yet pinged high enough for either side to change its position. That is what it will take because the tariff feud has turned into a contest of wills over a much broader geopolitical struggle.
Trump is holding fast. He gloated over his tough China stance to an adoring crowd of 20,000 fans during his 2020 Presidential campaign rally in Orlando, Florida. While his understanding of trade complexities can be charitably described as confused, he proudly declared that Americans were not paying for the tariffs, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The best the world can hope for is a pause between the two with neither side looking like they are “giving in.”
This followed not-so-veiled threats that if the meeting didn’t happen Trump would immediately impose additional tariffs on the remaining $300 billion of Chinese imports. He remains convinced that the US has the upper hand and “China will have to make a deal.” These are not the words of a leader convinced he has to compromise, even though he offered conciliatory words about how strong of a leader Xi is and their good personal relationship.
The Trump administration is already walking back expectations of a major breakthrough. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, speaking to Bloomberg at the Paris Air Show this week said “eventually we will have a deal with China, but I don’t think it will come directly out of the G20. The G20 is 40,000 foot level kind of discussion.” Principles for going forward, he went on to say, would be the best case.
It’s hard to imagine what principled negotiations would look like when there has been so little of it in the past. Sending mixed signals is Trump’s forte, it’s how he keeps everyone guessing, as if that’s some masterstroke of negotiating leverage. It isn’t. An impulsive strategy like this builds mistrust and uncertainty, the opposite conditions for effective negotiations.
Xi also shows no signs of compromise. Economic growth may be slowing, from manufacturing to car sales to exports and foreign direct investment, but the policy pumps are just turning on to push the economy forward again. “Soft” diplomacy has begun to turn hard with academic program cancellations, delayed visa issuances, and anti-US rhetoric on state-controlled media. These are not the signs of a leader ready to compromise either.
More importantly stark differences remain between both sides. The US wants fundamental changes to China’s system of state-owned enterprises. The state sector is one of the few remaining vestiges of party control over the economy and Xi would have to damage his own base to satisfy Trump’s demands. This looks increasingly like a non-negotiable issue.
President Xi, in agreeing to the G20 meeting, said he wants Chinese companies to be treated fairly, an oblique reference to letting the Huawei issue go. Trump has casually suggested the company could be included in a trade deal, but this further muddies the waters of what constitutes a national security threat versus a political punching bag. Congressional backlash to softening his stance would be swift and unforgiving.
Instead, the best the world can hope for is a pause between the two with neither side looking like they are “giving in.”
The G20 is a perfect venue for these gestures, with its traditionally grand shows of diplomatic pleasantries. If Trump and Xi appear together, shake hands, and smile, consider that a small victory. If a process or roadmap is announced, then at least both sides can go back to their corners while negotiators search for compromises — not a terrible outcome considering the alternatives.
Trade disagreements between the US and China are at risk of becoming symbolic of a great power rivalry, and symbols can easily take on a life of their own if given enough time and energy. A dangerous nationalistic fervor brews in both countries. It doesn’t take much to go from simmer to boil.
Considering the risks of a breakdown in talks, both sides need to go in clear-minded. At present there is no economic crisis that will pressure Beijing to make concessions. And election-cycle politics in the US will not pressure Trump into a deal. To the contrary, his campaign’s talking-points have already been tested using China as an easy target for political gains.
That expectations for the Osaka meeting need to sink so low speaks to a broader break down in relations rather than the specific trade issues that need to be addressed.
In diplomacy, sometimes a pause is a prelude to a turn around, sometimes it’s just a break to argue another day. In either case, not escalating the feud is a benefit for everyone, even if it’s just a short-term win that both sides can claim as their own.
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