Trade deal seen as most durable as Sino-American ties fall apart

WASHINGTON • For the better part of three years, United States President Donald Trump's trade war with China strained relations between the world's largest economies.

Now, the trade pact the two countries signed in January appears to be the most durable part of the US-China relationship.

Tensions between the US and China are flaring over the coronavirus, which the Trump administration accuses China of failing to control, as well as accusations of espionage, intellectual property theft and human rights violations.

US officials last Tuesday ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, saying diplomats there had aided in economic espionage. That prompted China to order the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu.

Earlier in the week, the Trump administration added another 11 Chinese companies to a government list, barring them from buying American technology and other products, citing human rights abuses against predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region in China's far west.

The two countries are also clashing over China's security crackdown in Hong Kong, its global 5G ambitions and its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

But unlike previous moments of heightened tensions between the US and China, Mr Trump has not threatened to impose additional tariffs on Chinese goods or take other steps to punish companies that export their products to America.

And neither side is threatening to rip up the initial trade deal they signed in January, which took years of painful negotiations to complete.

As tensions between the two countries rise again, both sides appear to think they have more to lose from rupturing the agreement than they would gain.

"Ironically, trade has become an area of cooperation or stability," said Dr Michael Pillsbury, a China expert at the Hudson Institute who advises the Trump administration.

In some ways, the signing of the sought-after trade deal has paved the way for the Trump administration to press China on other fronts.


In pursuit of a trade deal, the Trump administration had long shelved various actions to address other concerns about China, including its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, its crackdown in Hong Kong and security threats and sanctions violations from Chinese technology and telecommunications companies like Huawei and ZTE.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2020, with the headline 'Trade deal seen as most durable as Sino-American ties fall apart'. Print Edition | Subscribe