But China’s readout of what happened in Argentina is different. China seems to believe that the only real movement was an agreement to halt additional tariffs and a mutual commitment to reduce the ones Trump and Xi put into effect this year.
In other words, Trump makes it sound like China is starting to cave to his demands. Top Chinese officials make it sound like the only thing that’s about to change is that U.S.-China trade relations would go back to where they were in January — before Trump unleashed his tariff war.
Wall Street doesn’t seem to mind that there’s still a big gap between the two sides and that details of the actual Argentina agreement are thin. Investors sent the Dow up 288 points Monday, largely because they believe the trade war won’t get any uglier. Trump’s original threat to hit all Chinese imports with tariffs is on the back burner. That could still happen in March or April, but Trump has a history of extending trade deadlines as long as talks are progressing.
“There isn’t a deal, of course, but the markets — which have demanded one — can relax for a while. The key is that things won’t get any worse for three months or longer: There will be no new 25 percent tariffs,” Greg Valliere, chief strategist at Horizon Investments, wrote in his morning political note.
Trump tweeted late Sunday that China had “agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S.” — which sounds as if China is going from the current 40 percent tariffs to zero. The reality is that China had a 25 percent tariff on U.S. and other foreign cars at the start of 2018 and reduced that to 15 percent for all foreign cars in May. But after Trump escalated the trade war last summer, Xi lifted the tariff — on U.S. cars only — to 40 percent.
"Pretty sure China won’t go below 15 percent just for the U.S.,” tweeted Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Monday that the administration believes the Chinese did commit to reducing auto tariffs to zero.
“We expect those [auto] tariffs to go to zero,” Kudlow said. “That is my understanding. I believe that commitment was made.”
The Chinese have yet to confirm the accuracy of Trump’s tweet on auto tariffs, but trade experts say the most likely scenario is that China will revert to 15 percent tariffs for American cars. If that is the case, Trump secured the same deal for U.S. automakers that they would have gotten in May — before Trump ramped up the trade war by hitting China with additional tariffs in July and September.
It’s a similar story for American farmers. While the trade truce was welcomed by agricultural groups, there is frustration that farmers bore the brunt of the tariff war and have little to show for it so far.
“While farmers are cautiously optimistic about this development, they are also keenly aware that they are still subject to the existing painful retaliatory tariffs and lost markets that have hurt their recently harvested crops and income,” said Angela Hofmann, executive director of Farmers for Free Trade.
China is a big importer of U.S. agricultural products, such as soybeans. At the start of the year, China was buying heavily, and all indications were that American farmers would continue to grow their market share in China. Trump caused a major market disruption with his tariffs as Xi fired back by putting hefty tariffs on soybeans, corn and pork. Prices plummeted for many crops and meats, and farm bankruptcies have risen sharply in the upper Midwest, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
After the Argentine steak dinner on Saturday, China agreed to buy more U.S. agricultural products. But the Chinese didn’t agree to any specific amount. Furthermore, this is similar to what China offered Trump back in early June — before the trade war heated up. China said it would greatly increase purchases of U.S. farm products and energy. Six months — and a lot of pain for farmers later — Trump doesn’t seem to have gotten much more for farmers.
It’s true that tensions have eased and Trump and Xi appear to have a good rapport, despite the many gaps they have yet to bridge. And China’s help on curbing illegal fentanyl exports to the United States is a welcome advancement as the nation grapples with how to solve the opioid epidemic.
But on the key trade issues, the United States and China are basically back to where they were in the spring: There’s little new to show for Trump’s trade war so far — unless the Chinese really do reduce tariffs on U.S. autos to zero.
Getting a better deal from China is likely to require more pressure from the Trump administration, especially if they want trade barriers to be lower than where they were in January and want China to take concrete steps to curb the theft of intellectual property and open its markets.
Kudlow, who was at the dinner meeting, stressed that Trump and Xi have remarkable chemistry and that gives him confidence the two sides will make a deal. But Kudlow added, “Much of the credibility of this discussion will hinge on rapid movement and implementation of China’s commitments.”
This could wind up being Trump’s signature foreign policy issue. There’s widespread agreement across the political spectrum and among business leaders that China hasn’t been playing fairly on trade and market access. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, told me over the weekend that Trump is right to get harder on China, although she isn’t a fan of Trump’s methods and tweets.
It’s unclear how much more Trump will get from Beijing. It’s likely to depend on how the U.S. economy and stock markets are doing in 2019. If they continue to look strong, Trump might feel more room to push China, even if there are temporary costs. But if markets and the economy look jittery, it will be harder to justify any hits at home to farmers, manufacturers and consumers.
The hard-liners in Trump’s inner circle still believe he will deliver on China. Dan DiMicco, a former steel executive and trade adviser to Trump’s campaign, tweeted that Trump “should hit #China with all we got” in March if Beijing doesn’t show big movement on trade.
But it’s hard not to look at the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (a.k.a. NAFTA 2.0) Trump signed at the G-20 and wonder whether U.S-China trade will end the same way — with a big signing ceremony and few changes. As Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said about the USMCA, “Ninety-five percent of what we will be voting on is the same as NAFTA."
So far, U.S.-China trade appears to be on a similar path.