By Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett
February 23, 2019

President Trump’s Friday Oval Office meeting with Chinese vice premier Liu He generated a flurry of news about the progress of U.S.-China trade talks. Here’s what we learned:

  • Let’s keep talking: Liu and his delegation will remain in Washington through the weekend for further talks instead of returning to Beijing Friday. Trump hailed the 48 hour extension as a sign that the two sides are nearing a final deal. “We are having good talks, and there’s a chance that something very exciting can happen,” he said.
  • Nothing “magical” about March 1: Trump reaffirmed his willingness to extend by at least a month his March 1 deadline for raising tariffs on Chinese imports—provided negotiators can make significant progress in discussions over the weekend.
  • Trump-Xi summit in Mar-a-Lago: Trump hopes to sign a final deal at a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at his resort in Mar-a-Lago, Florida sometime next month.
  • Cool beans: China promised to purchase an additional $10 billion metric tons of U.S. soy beans, an increase that would be equal to about a third of China’s 2017 U.S. soy bean imports from the U.S.
  • Stabilizing the yuan: The two nations have agreed on a currency provision to keep the value of the yuan stable and neutralize any effort by China to soften the impact of U.S. tariffs. There were no details and it’s unclear whether the accord would include a binding commitment from China with repercussions for failure to comply. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called the deal “one of the strongest agreements ever on currency.”
  • Don’t call it an MOU: Among the most bizarre moments in Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Liu was an exchange with trade representative Robert Lighthizer about how to describe a U.S.-China deal. Before a phalanx of cameras, an exasperated Lighthizer seemed to lecture the press—and his boss—on the meaning of “memorandum of understanding.” An MOU, he explained, “is a contract. It’s the way trade agreements are generally used…” Trump wouldn’t have it. “By the way, I disagree,” he countered. “I think that a Memorandum of Understanding is not a contract to the extent that we want…I don’t like MOUs because they don’t mean anything…I think you’re better off just going into a document.” Trump’s open dissent with his trade adviser provoked a guffaw, quickly stifled, from Liu. Lighthizer immediately changed tack: “From now on we’re not using the word Memorandum of Understanding anymore. We’re going to use the term trade agreement, all right?”
  • Cashing chips: The Financial Times reports that U.S. and Chinese negotiators are trying to resolve a long-running dispute between rival chipmakers Micron Technology and Fujian Jinhua as part of the larger trade deal.
  • Stuck on structure: It’s clear the two sides remain at loggerheads on “structural issues,” including China’s practice of forcing foreign companies to transfer technology as the price of access to the Chinese market; China’s generous state subsidies for technology firms; and wide-ranging theft by Chinese companies of U.S. intellectual property.

That’s a lot to digest. Parsing the larger context is harder still. If nothing else, Trump’s recent tweets and public statements on U.S.-China trade negotiations suggest trade hawks like Lighthizer and Peter Navarro are losing ground. Bruised by his futile stand-off with Democrats over funding for a border wall with Mexico, vexed by the imminent release of the Mueller report, and weighing his chances for re-election in 2020, Trump needs a win. Tariff Man is morphing into Monty Hall.

The true enigma of U.S.-China talks is Trump’s shifting position on Huawei Technology, China’s telecommunications equipment giant. For months White House officials have insisted U.S. demands that Canada extradite Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou to the U.S. on fraud charges, and subsequent Justice Department indictments against Huawei for violating U.S. sanctions policies and stealing technology secrets of U.S. companies are matters of law, and therefore on a “separate track” from trade negotiations. On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed Huawei as a threat to U.S. relations with Europe.

That tough talk is beginning to sound like a bluff. As I noted in Data Sheet Wednesday, Germany has nixed U.S. demands that it ban Huawei from its 5G network, and security officials in America’s closest security ally, the United Kingdom, now say they can “manage” the risk of buying telecom equipment from Huawei. Investor’s Business Daily argues: “The problem is, Huawei is way ahead in developing next-generation 5G technology. The U.S. isn’t even close. And other nations want 5G. Now.”

Trump’s recent tweets on 5G (and 6G!) make it clearer than ever that he is so keen for a trade deal that he is willing to offer clemency to Meng—and grant U.S. market access for Huawei—as a sweetener to close the trade deal.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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