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Trump, China reach preliminary trade agreements on beef, poultry

Cattle await their fate at the 84 Auction in Eighty-Four, Pa., on Feb. 6. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)

The Trump administration has reached new deals with China to ease market access for a variety of industries, including beef and financial services, as the White House makes progress on trying to soften economic barriers between the two sides.

The 10-part agreement, announced by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, comes as part of an ongoing negotiation between the two countries following a meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month.

“We have some very big news,” Ross told reporters Thursday. “U.S.-China relationships are now hitting a new high, especially in trade. We're announcing, jointly with the Chinese, the initial results of the 100-day action plan of the U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue.”

But experts were less impressed.

“China has made a few modest concessions that cost it very little, in areas strategically picked to maximize the political benefit to Trump,” said Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics, an economic research firm in Beijing. “But the substantive impact on US-China trade and investment flows is pretty minimal.”

Still, in a week of chaotic news from the Trump administration, White House officials pitched the agreement as a major breakthrough.

The new arrangements include an agreement from China to allow imports of U.S. beef, on certain conditions, by July 16. The United States has pressured China for years to allow beef imports, but the process has been constantly delayed.

“It’s at least a $2.5 billion market that’s being opened up for U.S. beef,” Ross said.

The beef industry praised the agreement.

"It's impossible to overstate how beneficial this will be for America's cattle producers, and the Trump Administration deserves a lot of credit for getting this achieved," National Cattlemen's Beef Association President Craig Uden said.

Similarly, Washington has agreed to advance a new rule that would allow China to export cooked poultry to the United States. The impact of this change on the U.S. poultry industry is uncertain, but Ross said it would not be severe.

And there were numerous other parts of the preliminary agreement. This included language that appears to pave the way for U.S. firms to export liquid natural gas to China, the expediting of Chinese safety reviews for U.S. biotechnology applications, and cooperation between Chinese and U.S. regulators over financial transactions.

Other parts of the arrangement would direct China to issue bond underwriting and settlement licenses to “two qualified U.S. financial institutions” by July 17, a date that is significant because it comes 100 days after Trump and Xi met in Florida. And the United States has agreed to allow Chinese entrepreneurs to a Washington summit in June.

Trump spent months on the campaign trail berating China for its trade practices, but he has softened his approach since winning office. He has initiated reviews of China’s support of its steel and aluminum industries and its impact on U.S. trade, but the outcome of those reviews is unclear. He has shown a willingness to back away from trade-related threats after consulting with aides and foreign leaders, and he has recently heaped praise on Xi and what he perceives as China’s willingness to negotiate.

Christopher Balding, an associate professor at the HSBC Business School in Shenzhen in China, said Trump had created leverage with his “undiplomatic statements” on the campaign trail.

“However, the importance of this deals shouldn't be overstated,” he added. “These are largely long standing issues that China was either legally obligated to address or had every reason in its own incentives to address.

Nevertheless, Balding said the agreement could provide the basis for further cooperation and market opening agreements for American firms in China.

At a news conference in Beijing, China’s Vice Commerce Minister Yu Jianhua said the trade deficit between the two countries had been “overestimated” and was not a priority during this round of talks.

But he added China was open-minded about discussing it in further rounds, calling the U.S. government’s attitude “positive and pragmatic.”

“The wisdom and ability of the two countries to control differences and properly handle bilateral relations is beyond the imagination of many people,” Yu said.

In Washington, Ross said this announcement covered 10 items, but was a step in the right direction.

“As you can appreciate, this addresses 10 items,” Ross said of the initial agreements. “There are probably 500 items that you could potentially discuss; maybe more than 500.” Ross said they would continue working and then “see if we can reach agreement” on other matters.

Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report.