Conflicting Signals: USTR Ups Pressure on China and Treasury Talks Lifting Tariffs

Messaging is everything in international diplomacy, especially around high-level negotiations. After the latest round of U.S.-China trade talks in Beijing, all signs pointed to a successful outcome. An extra day was added beyond the planned two days of talks. Vice Premier Liu He made a short appearance at the lower-lower-level gathering of deputies. The U.S. Deputy Agriculture Secretary had glowing words after the meeting (though curiously no one from USTR spoke during the coveted press briefing.) Trump even tweeted shortly afterwards that the talks had gone very well.

And then the messaging changed, at least from USTR. 

Lighthizer said last week, according to Sen. Grassley who had met with him Friday, that he hadn’t seen the structural changes he was looking for from China. That’s a major sticking point for the White House and something Trump has repeatedly said must be addressed to avoid raising tariffs from 10% to 25% on Chinese goods.

It is an odd complaint since China would likely only agree to the far more difficult issues face-to-face at Cabinet-level negotiations with either USTR Lighthizer or President Trump. The Beijing meeting was a the Deputy level, a.k.a. not the decision makers.

Lighthizer also announced that if talks don’t work out, U.S. companies could apply for exclusions to the 25% tariffs on $200 billion of imports from China that are set to take affect in March.

That’s a weak nod to the U.S. business community who were directly affected by the 10% tariffs and are likely lobbying hard for a resolution to the trade impasse. The promise of exclusions provide cold comfort since the aim of the next round of tariffs is to put even more pressure on China. Any exclusions would weaken that influence. Approvals would likely be slow-rolled by the administration. 

USTR now appears to be trying to get out in front and push their hardline agenda ahead of the Jan. 30-31 talks. Sen. Grassley commented in a briefing to the press that since China’s economy is ailing there’s a chance to get more progress on these harder issues, which include IP protection, forced tech transfer, and stealing trade secrets.

These issues aren’t going away. The Department of Justice is now looking into whether Huawei stole robotic technology from T-Mobile.

To further complicate the administration’s signaling, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has been discussing lifting tariffs as an incentive for China to make an equally bold move, though it’s unclear what that could be considering the depth of structural changes needed to satisfy U.S. concerns.

Since China isn’t going to agree to the U.S. list of over one hundred issues raised, and Trump isn’t going to accept some token purchases of U.S. goods and nothing else, some kind of compromise is necessary. What Grassley and other White House hardliners may not fully accept is that Trump’s approval ratings are plummeting, major U.S. companies are feeling the effects of the tariffs, and Trump himself may be itching for a settlement.

Compromise isn’t really in Trump’s winner-take-all approach and his impulsiveness can lead to unexpected outcomes (e.g. the Wall shutdown). The U.S. and China have been locked in a mutually reinforcing death spiral of tariff-raising for the past year and time is on no one’s side here.

USTR should certainly push for everything they can get. If cooler heads prevail, some sort of short-term relief with continued tariffs on some Chinese goods, and a plan to tackle the harder issues over time is the most likely outcome.

Both sides might not get exactly what they what, but it’s certainly better than the global economic carnage of a prolonged trade war and Trump really looks like he could use a win right now.


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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. 


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U.S.-China Trade War – Attack on Consumers

The next tranche of U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods are about to hit. Rather than being largely invisible to the public like the first $50 billion, round two includes seafood, bicycles, suitcases, bags, carpets, air conditioners, and sports gear (an exhaustive list of over 190 pages can be found as a USTR .pdf file here.)

(DoD Photo By Glenn Fawcett – Wikimedia Commons)

Other imports subject to tariffs this time around include auto glass, tires, engines, iron, steel, flooring, and construction tools. A visit to Lowe’s or a home improvement project will cost more, along with new cars that use China-made inputs.

This is the beginning of his attack on consumers, but not the worst yet. Some of the most popular consumer items including toys, cell phones, and pharmaceuticals, were not included. A consumer backlash is the last thing the Trump administration needs right now as polls continue to show Republican candidates struggling in the run-up to the midterms. The widespread business outcry would also be hard to contain.

Still, this latest round of tariffs and the failed recent trade talks suggest more problems ahead for the relationship as both Trump and Xi harden their positions. 

Some China policy advisors have concluded that Trump is hell-bent on weakening China. That view casts the tit-for-tat tariff struggle in a far more damaging political light. Xi Jinping will be easily backed into a corner where he has no choice but to fight and show his people how strong China has become.

Trump’s advisors meanwhile, including Larry Kudlow, are feeding him the false impression that China’s economy is on the ropes and ripe for disruption. With a “winner take all” approach Trump will have to keep ratcheting up the pressure, no matter how much he breaks in the process.

With so much distrust and misinformation flowing freely, expect this dispute to go well into 2019 and affect consumers far more than at present.

The U.S. can include almost $200+ billion more in traded goods. China, out of categories to include by then, can opt for a trade war by other means by restricting U.S. business operations and increasing scrutiny of foreign investment.

To be sure this is no easy win for Trump, no matter how many times he says it. Tariffs are a blunt instrument. Come January the domestic environment, including Congress, may not be so supportive of his “get tough” efforts, which will have done little except to increase consumer prices and the cost of doing business.