BEIJING • China vowed yesterday to move swiftly to strike a trade consensus with the United States, even as mixed signals on the detente from self-described "Tariff Man" Donald Trump's administration upset global markets.
The US President sowed more confusion as he opened the door to lengthier negotiations with China, suggesting that they could extend beyond a 90-day deadline to reach an agreement to avoid a massive tariff increase.
But the Chinese Commerce Ministry said negotiators will "actively push forward negotiations within 90 days in accordance with a clear timetable and road map" - marking Beijing's first public acknowledgement of the deadline announced by the US at the weekend.
The ministry lauded Mr Trump's talks with President Xi Jinping at the weekend as "successful", and said it was "confident" their agreement would be implemented.
The ministry also vowed to start implementing "specific matters" that were agreed - saying "the sooner, the better" - but did not provide any details.
Mr Trump and Mr Xi agreed on a trade war truce on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Argentina last Saturday, holding off on new tariffs and giving negotiators three months to reach an agreement.
China pledged to buy more from the US, and the White House said the two sides would negotiate "structural changes" to thorny issues plaguing relations, though few details and no dollar amounts were disclosed.
However, the verbal detente was broken yesterday as China's Foreign Ministry lashed out at criticism from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Mr Pompeo's remarks "go contrary to the spirit of the consensus between our two leaders", ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.
Noting the applause at the end of Xi-Trump summit, Mr Geng asked: "I don't know (what) people clapping at that time now mean by saying this type of thing. What are their intentions?"
Mr Pompeo said in Brussels on Tuesday that the US could abandon some international agreements to thwart bad actors like China, which he accused of cynically exploiting World Trade Organisation rules.
Adding to the confusion, Mr Trump indicated on Tuesday that the trade talks could go beyond the March 1 deadline.
"The negotiations with China have already started. Unless extended, they will end 90 days from the date of our wonderful and very warm dinner with President Xi in Argentina," Mr Trump tweeted.
But the US leader kept up the threats as he warned that he was ready to make China "pay for the privilege" of selling in the US market if the negotiations fail.
While he said he would "happily sign" a fair deal that addresses US concerns, he warned: "Remember, I am a Tariff Man."
The change in tone and the increased confusion over what was achieved at the meeting contributed to a sharp decline in the US stock market, which plunged on Tuesday, driven lower by trade worries and fears for future US economic growth. Chinese shares closed lower yesterday amid similar doubts.
As part of the truce, Mr Trump agreed to hold off on plans to raise the tariffs on US$200 billion (S$273 billion) worth of Chinese imports to 25 per cent beginning on Jan 1, leaving them at the current 10 per cent rate.
The tone of Mr Trump's latest tweets shows an apparent shift from 24 hours earlier, when he was unreservedly triumphant, saying relations with China had taken a "big leap forward". On Tuesday, he said US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer would lead the talks to see "whether or not a real deal with China is actually possible".
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said markets were in a "wait-and-see" mode. "The market is trying to figure out, is there going to be a real deal at the end of 90 days or not," he said at a Wall Street Journal event on Tuesday.