Trade deal a mixed success for Trump: Experts

Demonstrators at a pro-Trump rally in the US state of Illinois on Saturday. The current trade truce could help President Donald Trump on the campaign trail by giving the American economy a boost. A worker packing bottles of oil made from imported US
A worker packing bottles of oil made from imported US soya beans at a plant in China's eastern Shandong province. The US-China deal stipulates that Beijing will buy an additional US$200 billion (S$270 billion) in American products over a two-year period, including US$50 billion in agricultural goods.PHOTO: REUTERS
Demonstrators at a pro-Trump rally in the US state of Illinois on Saturday. The current trade truce could help President Donald Trump on the campaign trail by giving the American economy a boost. A worker packing bottles of oil made from imported US
Demonstrators at a pro-Trump rally in the US state of Illinois on Saturday. The current trade truce could help President Donald Trump on the campaign trail by giving the American economy a boost. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump is set to sign a trade deal with China on Wednesday that he will trumpet as a major victory, but it comes at a steep cost after a bitter two-year stand-off between the world's two top economic powers.

"The hard issues between the United States and China are still outstanding," said Mr Edward Alden, trade policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But he acknowledged that "politically, this does work pretty well for Trump" as he runs for re-election later this year.

The White House can boast that it has been "tough on China", and that "technically he's got a deal", something he promised voters in 2016, Mr Alden said.

At the very least, the truce has reassured markets, roiled by constant upheaval in 2018 and last year amid threats, counter-threats and waves of tariffs.

The current ceasefire could also help Mr Trump on the campaign trail by giving the American economy a boost.

As uncertainty eases, consumers would have greater reason to spend with confidence, and businesses might also move forward with investments that were put on hold over fears about how the conflict would play out.

Mr Trump announced to great fanfare on New Year's Eve that he would sign the "phase one" deal on Jan 15 in the White House.

But it was not until last Thursday that the Chinese Ministry of Commerce confirmed the visit of Vice-Premier Liu He, who will be in Washington from today to Wednesday.

Details of the scope of the agreement have remained a mystery, however. "The whole document will be released on Wednesday," Mr Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, told reporters on Friday.

There will be "a lovely ceremony", he added, preceded the night before by a formal dinner and followed by a lunch.

 
 

Mr Kudlow dismissed criticism that the deal fell short of expectations, saying US negotiators won numerous concessions.

The White House has said the deal includes improvements on the technology transfer requirements that Beijing imposes on foreign companies, as well as better access to the Chinese market for financial services.

It also stipulates that Beijing will buy an additional US$200 billion (S$270 billion) in American products over a two-year period compared with 2017, including US$50 billion in agricultural goods.

In return, the Trump administration has called off new tariffs on Chinese-made goods like electronics and cellphones that were due to take effect last month, and cut in half those imposed on Sept 1 on US$120 billion in products.

But many tariffs remain in place, and the trade war has squeezed US businesses.

The deal is a "mixed success" and comes at a price, said professor of trade policy at Cornell University Eswar Prasad, who is also an expert on China.

"Trump has extracted some concessions from China and other US trading partners but at a significant cost to the US economy and with an erosion of the US' international standing as a trustworthy and reliable trading partner."

The Chinese economy has slowed markedly, partly as a result of the trade war, but American manufacturing and farmers also have suffered.

To mitigate losses in the agricultural sector, the Trump administration had to provide a total of US$28 billion in aid to farmers in 2018 and last year.

And US manufacturing entered a recession last August. "There's been significant harm to American farmers and significant harm to the US manufacturing industry, and the new purchase commitments by China are unlikely to undo that damage," Mr Alden said.

 
 

One of Mr Trump's main goals in launching the trade war was to reduce the US trade deficit and put an end to unfair trade practices, but trade experts doubt Washington can succeed in getting Beijing to make significant structural changes.

Dr Prasad said China is unlikely to yield on key demands from the Trump administration, such as substantially reducing state subsidies to companies.

Professor of economics and finance Xu Bin of the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai said the two sides can declare they have an agreement "that will be acceptable, (but) not a victory". "I think essentially the fight between China and the US will continue as far as we can see, over the next few years, next 10 years, next 20 years, even further", veering between conflict and truce, he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEE BUSINESS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2020, with the headline 'Trade deal a mixed success for Trump: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe