President Trump is dispatching several of his top economic advisers to China next week for high-level talks aimed at easing trade tensions, several weeks after the White House and Beijing threatened each other with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tariffs.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer will be among those on the trip, Trump said Tuesday. The president specified no particular goals for the delegation, but he said the trip is being organized at Beijing’s request. Chinese officials in recent weeks have repeatedly complained that the Trump administration has refused to say which concessions could resolve Trump’s complaints or even which U.S. official is in charge of the trade fight.
“We’re having very substantive discussions on trade,” Trump said, without elaboration, at the White House.
Rufus Yerxa, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, welcomed the announcement. “We’d be encouraged by any indication that both sides are going to move toward some meaningful negotiation,” he said. “We’ll be interested to see what they put on the table.”
Mnuchin first disclosed plans for a possible China trip this weekend on the sidelines of the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The inclusion of Lighthizer, the president’s top negotiator and a veteran of decades of trade battles, may herald a round of bare-knuckled haggling.
But Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that internal administration disputes over Trump’s ultimate goal — better access to the Chinese market or a fundamental shift in Beijing’s industrial policies — make quick progress unlikely. “I don’t see a deal being struck on this trip,” he said. “They’re not going to outline even a framework of a deal.”
In March and April, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping engaged in an escalating flurry of trade attacks, with Trump vowing to impose tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum and Xi promising to impose tariffs on U.S. agricultural products. The back-and-forth spooked financial markets and lawmakers from both parties, in part because Trump didn’t appear to have a specific strategy for resolving the fight.
He has said the $375 billion gap between what the United States imports from China and what the U.S. exports to China is costing Americans jobs and must be narrowed, demanding China open its markets to more American goods, such as automobiles.
Trump has called for “reciprocal” trade policies that would effectively put a tariff of equal size against any country that imposes tariffs on U.S. exports. But Chinese officials have recently said they would enact their own version of this policy, referring to it as “retaliation” and targeting products that could cause the most political pain in the United States by focusing on agricultural products.
Jeff Moon, a former U.S. assistant trade representative for China, said any deal must address Trump’s trade deficit complaints, pry open closed Chinese markets and modify policies that crimp foreign companies operating in China. U.S. officials also should address the Communist Party’s increasing involvement in the daily affairs of foreign companies. “That is real overreach that someone ought to stop,” Moon said.
The president said that his approach to China is paying dividends.
“I believe the trade will work out, but I also think that China has never treated us with more respect than they have over the last short period of time that I’m president,” he said. “I have a very excellent, as you know, relationship with President Xi.”