When U.S. and Chinese negotiators resume trade talks Thursday evening, they will try to recast their economic relationship for the future. But the biggest obstacle to success may be their rival understandings of the past.
The Trump administration looks at the past 20 years of agreements with China as an unbroken record of cheating and broken promises. To avoid a repeat performance, Robert E. Lighthizer, the president’s chief trade negotiator, is determined to craft an accord replete with iron requirements China must implement.
Yet China’s history as the victim of what its officials call “unequal treaties” from the 19th century makes Beijing reluctant to accept terms that might be seen at home as foreign dictates.
Trump has tried to reassure China by stating publicly that his goal is not to prevent its rise and that he blames his American predecessors, rather than Beijing, for the chronic U.S. trade deficit, according to an individual close to the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain internal deliberations.
These competing historical narratives are shaping negotiators’ strategies and explain why — after anticipating an agreement as soon as the end of this week — the two sides instead find themselves deadlocked.
President Trump plans to more than double tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods at 12:01 a.m. Friday in response to what U.S. officials say was Chinese backsliding on a tentative agreement.
China on Wednesday vowed to respond “in kind” if the president proceeds.
Chinese Vice Premier Liu He is expected to meet Lighthizer on Thursday, just hours before the higher levies kick in. The Chinese delegation is “coming to the U.S. to make a deal,” Trump tweeted. “We’ll see.”
Lighthizer said earlier this week that Chinese negotiators were seeking “substantial” changes in an agreed text he and Liu had negotiated “line by line.”
The revisions included core provisions specifying which Chinese laws would be amended to prevent the forced technology-transfer practices that ignited the tariff war more than a year ago.
Some analysts warn Trump’s latest threats — which include placing tariffs on all $540 billion in annual Chinese imports — risk backing Chinese President Xi Jinping into a corner.
“If the choice is between tariffs and surrendering to Trump on U.S. terms, then China will opt for the tariffs,” said Michael Hirson, who leads the Eurasia Group’s coverage of China.
From the outset of the trade dispute, which centers on China’s technology-acquisition policies, Trump administration officials have been determined to avoid what they see as the mistakes of the past.
Previous U.S. presidents from both parties entered into dialogues and agreements with China without permanently resolving issues of trade-secrets theft and forced technology transfer, the administration said.
Since 2010, Chinese officials, including Xi, made 10 specific commitments to address U.S. complaints about trade-secrets theft and forced technology transfer, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
In 2016, during Barack Obama’s final visit to China as president, Xi pledged not to require the transfer of intellectual property rights or technology as a condition of doing business in China.
U.S. officials say they must have more than promises this time. Lighthizer has pushed an enforcement system giving the U.S. the right to impose tariffs if it decides that China is not living up to the deal -- with China barred from responding in kind.
“We’ve had these conversations with China for years. If you don’t have specific commitments, backed up with enforcement, you don’t have anything,” said Clete Willems, a former senior White House trade official, who starts as a partner at Akin Gump next month.
Chinese diplomats feel equally strongly about not letting the United States dictate terms. Their sensitivity has its origins in the treaties that Western powers, including the United States, forced a feeble Qing Dynasty to accept following the First Opium War in the 1840s.
In China’s recounting, the accords compelled China to open its ports to foreign goods, beginning a “century of humiliation” that ended only with Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.
Trade talks with the United States come just days after China marked the 100th anniversary of its May Fourth Movement, commemorating student protests over the Chinese government’s weak response to the provisions of the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I. Under that agreement, Germany’s colonial concessions in China were transferred to other foreign powers without Chinese leaders having any say in the matter.
Trump has tried to mollify Chinese concerns about foreign bullying by taking steps to prevent the trade pact from appearing one-sided. The United States would be bound by the same intellectual property, technology-transfer and open-investment provisions as China, said the individual close to the talks.
Aaron L. Friedberg, a China expert at Princeton University who served as an adviser to former vice president Richard B. Cheney, said there are limits to history’s hold on the Chinese government.
“They use the ‘century of humiliation’ and all the bad things that foreigners have done to them as a tool that serves multiple purposes,” he said, including as a shield against legitimate foreign demands.
More recent experience may also explain negotiators’ inability thus far to strike a bargain.
For 40 years, U.S. leaders have prioritized deepening economic ties between the two countries rather than confront China over its trade practices.
The recent backsliding that irked Trump may indicate that Beijing has misread him and expects the unconventional U.S. leader to make the same choice, Friedberg said.
“They may have trouble imagining this relationship could fundamentally break down and look very different than it does now,” he added.