WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump said he is very close to "doing something" with China, ahead of a planned meeting with President Xi Jinping, raising expectations again that the two leaders may be able to hash out a ceasefire in their trade war.
US and Chinese officials have been working for weeks on the contours of a possible deal for the two leaders to be announced following their dinner today on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a road map for talks to follow.
Those discussions, according to people familiar with them, have centred on the possibility of a truce in which the United States would delay ramping up tariffs on China in exchange for Chinese concessions.
The two leaders would also agree on a framework for further talks, US officials such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have said publicly.
The two sides have also been eyeing a possible trip to Wash-ington in the middle of this month by Vice-Premier Liu He, Mr Xi's top economic adviser, according to two sources.
In the lead-up to today's dinner - the two leaders' first face-to-face meeting in more than 12 months - Mr Trump has oscillated between trying to appear tough about his tariffs-driven strategy and opening the door to a deal with Mr Xi.
"I think we are very close to doing something with China, but I don't know that I want to do it because what we have right now is billions and billions of dollars coming into the US in the form of tariffs or taxes," Mr Trump told reporters on Thursday as he departed the White House to travel to Argentina.
The White House has not received an offer from China that encompasses the major issues that Mr Trump wants to resolve, according to a person briefed by White House officials on Thursday, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Mr Trump could wind up agreeing to a ceasefire, but the progress made so far suggests a deal seems a far-off prospect, the person said.
Mr Trump has imposed duties on US$250 billion (S$343 billion) in Chinese imports in recent months. A 10 per cent tariff on US$200 billion of those goods is due to rise to 25 per cent on Jan 1.
Mr Trump has also threatened to impose tariffs on the remaining US$267 billion worth of Chinese products imported last year.
"Billions of dollars are pouring into the coffers of the USA be-cause of the tariffs being charged to China, and there is a long way to go," Mr Trump said on Twitter earlier on Thursday. "If com-panies don't want to pay tariffs, build in the USA. Otherwise, let's just make our country richer than ever before!"
Mr Xi and Mr Trump will walk into their dinner with very different goals in mind - clouding the prospects for a grand bargain that could ease investors' concerns.
"The Chinese are looking for a floor from this meeting," said Assistant Professor Dennis Wilder, a former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under president George W. Bush.
"Xi has got to find a way to stop the bleeding here; he is trying to stop the spiralling down from getting any worse," he said, referring to Mr Xi's aim to preserve China's relationship with the US.
For Mr Trump and his aides, the dinner offers an ideal venue to air long-standing US grievances over trade, particularly complaints about intellectual property theft and forced transfer of technology.
Mr Larry Kudlow, the top White House economic adviser, told reporters this week that Mr Trump needed Mr Xi to offer more at his meeting for a breakthrough.
But US officials, including Mr Kudlow, have also said repeatedly in recent weeks that any agreement to fully resolve trade differences between the US and China would likely take months of difficult negotiations to reach.
A ceasefire, analysts say, would at least delay the risk of a further escalation in the trade war while talks proceed.