The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump undermines his own trade success with China

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On Monday, President Trump praised his “extraordinary” meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping over the weekend, saying that relations with China had taken a “BIG leap forward” despite the ongoing trade war between the two nations.

The men held a working dinner Saturday in Buenos Aires, where they were attending the G-20 summit, and hammered out what seemed like a straightforward agreement. The United States delayed raising some tariffs on Chinese goods for 90 days, allowing the two sides more time for trade talks. In return, the Chinese agreed to purchase more American goods, thus lowering the U.S.-China trade deficit that Trump abhors.

It seemed that many people shared Trump’s optimism: American stock markets rallied on Monday, with investors heartened by the idea of a 90-day truce in the economic battle between Washington and Beijing.

But the optimism was short-lived. By the next day, confusion was mounting about what Trump and Xi actually agreed to during their working dinner on Saturday in Buenos Aires. And it wasn’t just the markets that seemed baffled, but also the very people who participated in the dinner and negotiated the agreement.

“After the talks ended Saturday evening, it took the White House three hours to release a two-page statement on the outcome,” wrote my colleague David J. Lynch for Today’s WorldView. “The delay gave China’s state-run media a head start in shaping the global understanding of what had transpired.”

Bloomberg News compared the statements released by both sides after the meeting and found two “parallel and rarely overlapping” messages. “The U.S. listed what China had agreed to in exchange for a 90-day pause in raising tariffs on Chinese goods, while Beijing focused on the broad reduction in trade tensions, without going into specifics,” Peter Martin wrote.

As The Post’s Anna Fifield reported from Beijing, Chinese state media made no mention of various aspects of the deal that were touted by the Trump administration, from the 90-day time frame or a reduction in tariffs on imported U.S. cars. Instead, Chinese news outlets and officials suggested there had been only incremental progress made — more a cautious step than a big leap forward.

“I only want to stress that the two leaders reached important consensus and the teams on the two parts will follow through on the consensus,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.

It soon became apparent that there was skepticism within Trump’s own Cabinet. Trump bragged specifically about China agreeing to lift its 40 percent tariff on U.S. auto imports, but White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters in a call on Monday that “we don’t yet have a specific agreement on that.”

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro also offered no confirmation of any tariff-reduction agreement when he spoke to NPR, saying only that auto tariffs “certainly came up” in discussions.

By Tuesday, even Trump was contradicting Trump. In a series of tweets, he abruptly reversed his optimistic assessment of the meeting with Xi, reminding the world that he was a “Tariff Man” and demanding that foreign countries pay for “the privilege” of raiding America’s wealth.

This dismay was clearly enough to spook investors and analysts. By midafternoon, the Dow Jones industrial average had plunged more than 600 points.

Despite Trump’s pessimistic tone on Tuesday, his meeting with Xi does appear to have had some positive results. Bloomberg’s John Authers identified a stronger Chinese yuan — the currency rose following the meeting — as a development that’s in both Washington’s and Beijing’s interests.

Nor should we necessarily doubt that China will eventually acquiesce on some of Trump’s major demands. Many experts say that Beijing has more to lose in a prolonged trade standoff with Washington. And while Trump is famously light on details, the man leading his talks with Beijing — U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer — is considered a heavyweight among hard-line critics of China.

Still, Trump’s negotiating style has once again been laid bare. He has over-promised and under-delivered, rushed to offer judgment on things that are in the early stages of negotiation and ping-ponged from friendly messages to threats — all within barely 48 hours. One former official said the president’s antics had puzzled and angered his Chinese counterparts.

“You don’t do this with the Chinese. You don’t triumphantly proclaim all their concessions in public. It’s just madness,” the former official told The Post.

It’s becoming a familiar pattern — not just in trade negotiations, but also in still-unresolved matters of national security like North Korea. “Do we have another Singapore summit, where the North Korean delegation went home with a very different set of perspectives?” was the question that Paul Haenle of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing put it to The Post.

And in the case of China, the effects are immediate. “Investors are losing patience with the confusion,” wrote Lynch, the Post’s global economic correspondent. “It’s not a pretty picture, and it won’t change any time soon.”

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