President Donald Trump wants to reach an agreement on trade with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 nations summit in Argentina later this month and has asked key U.S. officials to begin drafting potential terms, according to four people familiar with the matter.
The push for a possible deal with China was prompted by the president’s telephone call with Xi on Thursday, the people said, requesting anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Afterward, Trump described the conversation as “long and very good” and said in a tweet that their discussions on trade were “moving along nicely.”
Trump asked key cabinet secretaries to have their staff draw up a potential deal to signal a ceasefire in an escalating trade conflict, the people said, adding that multiple agencies are involved in the drafting of the plan. It was unclear if Trump was easing up on U.S. demands that China has resisted.
The news prompted stocks to surge in Hong Kong and China, while the offshore yuan jumped as much as 0.5 percent for the biggest two-day gain since August. The Hang Seng Index rose 4.2 percent, the biggest gain since 2011, and the Shanghai Composite Index climbed 2.7 percent, posting a fourth day of gains for its longest winning streak since February.
U.S.-China talks have made little progress since May, when Trump put a stop to a deal that would see China buy more energy and agricultural goods to narrow the trade deficit. In Beijing that was seen as an insult to Xi, who sent a personal emissary to Washington for the negotiations, and cemented a view that Trump’s real goal was to thwart China’s rise.
Analysts were mixed on the significance of Trump’s latest move, with some viewing it as a positive sign of a breakthrough and others seeing it as a ploy to boost market sentiment ahead of midterm elections next week.
‘I Don’t Buy the Story’
“I don’t buy the story for a second,” said Michael Every, head of Asia financial markets research at Rabobank in Hong Kong. “This seems a perfect way to ensure equities rally into election day, put Xi into a box in terms of what is expected of him and then have someone to blame when the deal then falls through.”
Tuuli McCully, head of Asia-Pacific economics at Scotiabank in Singapore, called the news “encouraging.” It “likely reflects the fact that businesses in the U.S. are starting to feel the impact of the trade conflict through higher prices and squeezed margins,” she said.
What Our Economists Say…
Any communication at this point is good. However, one can hardly breathe a sign of relief at this point. There are many hurdles before trade tensions can be diffused. Can the U.S. and China meet the demands from each other? Can an agreement stick? There have been some false dawns in the past year. Chang Shu, Chief Asia Economist at Bloomberg Economics
The telephone conversation on Thursday was Trump and Xi’s first publicly disclosed call in six months. Both sides reported that they had constructive discussions on North Korea and trade, with Chinese state media saying that Trump supported “frequent, direct communication” between the presidents and “joint efforts to prepare for” the planned meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit, which is scheduled to take place from from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1.
“Those discussions are moving along nicely,” Trump wrote on Twitter Thursday. At a campaign rally in Columbia, Missouri, on Thursday night he said, “they want to make a deal.”
“He wants to do it,” Trump said of Xi. “They all want to do it.”
The possible warming of relations comes after months of escalating tensions over trade that are threatening to spill into other areas of disagreement, including freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Trump administration this year has already imposed tariffs on $250 billion in trade with China and is threatening to impose tariffs on all remaining imports from China, which last year were worth $505 billion.
In recent months China has repeatedly questioned the U.S.’s sincerity in trade talks, wary of agreeing to something only to have Trump change his mind. While Beijing is open to striking a deal that narrows the trade deficit, officials have resisted Trump’s other demands — including an end to subsidies for strategic industries, a stop to forced technology transfer and more competition for state-owned enterprises.
One person said a sticking point in any potential deal is intellectual property theft, where the Trump administration has sought to take a hard line.
On Thursday, the U.S. accused a Chinese state-owned company of conspiring to steal trade secrets of U.S. chipmaker Micron Technology Inc. as part of a Justice Department crackdown against China in cases of suspected economic espionage.
Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Co. and Taiwan’s United Microelectronics Corp. were indicted along with three individuals, the Justice Department said. The U.S. also sued to stop the companies from exporting to America any products that were created using the trade secrets.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said at an event in Washington that Trump and Xi might be able to break the logjam on issues during the summit. But Kudlow cautioned that Trump would “aggressively” pursue his agenda against China, if no deals were reached on intellectual property theft, cybersecurity and tariffs on commodities, among other issues.
Trump’s posture toward China has been closely watched by investors, who are looking for the possibility of tensions cooling.
Xinhua, China’s state news agency, reported on Friday that Trump had told the Chinese leader that “he looks forward to meeting Xi during the G20 summit so they can have an in-depth discussion about some major issues.”
“If a Trump-Xi deal at the G-20 Summit can set the broad framework for renewed bilateral trade negotiations it may help the global trading system avert the abyss of an escalating US-China trade war in 2019,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit in Singapore.