Trump softens rhetoric, but officials say he will not budge

A customer browsing in a shop with imported US furniture in Hangzhou, in China's Zhejiang province, on Tuesday. US President Donald Trump has denied that trade talks with China have broken down, describing dialogue between the two countries as "very
A customer browsing in a shop with imported US furniture in Hangzhou, in China's Zhejiang province, on Tuesday. US President Donald Trump has denied that trade talks with China have broken down, describing dialogue between the two countries as "very good". But in his conversations with advisers, he says that he has no intention of pulling back on the escalating trade war. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump called the trade war with China "a little squabble", and insisted that talks between the world's two largest economies had not collapsed, as investors remained on guard for a further escalation of tit-for-tat tariffs.

Mr Trump, who has railed against what he describes as China's unfair trade practices and threatened to impose punitive levies on all its imports, softened his tone in a series of remarks on Tuesday expressing optimism about reaching a trade deal with Beijing.

"We are having a little squabble with China because we have been treated very unfairly for many, many decades," Mr Trump told reporters, referring to US complaints about Chinese intellectual property and subsidy practices.

He also denied that talks with China had broken down after Washington punctuated two days of negotiations last week with another round of tariffs on Chinese imports, and Beijing followed suit on Monday with higher tariffs on US goods.

"We have a dialogue going. It will always continue," said Mr Trump, who has announced plans to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Group of 20 Summit in Japan late next month.

Mr Trump described the dialogue with China as "very good", and touted his "extraordinary" relationship with Mr Xi.

Earlier, Mr Trump tweeted that the United States would make a deal with China when the "time is right", and said that would happen "much faster" than thought.

 
 
 
 

In his conversations with advisers, however, Mr Trump is saying that he has no intention of pulling back on his escalating trade war with China, arguing that clashing with Beijing is highly popular with his political base and will help him win re-election next year regardless of any immediate economic pain.

Administration officials and outside Trump advisers say they do not expect him to shift his position significantly in the coming days, saying he is determined to endure an intensifying showdown with Mr Xi despite turbulence in global markets and frustration in his own party.

Mr Trump's defiance is rooted in decades of viewing the Chinese as economic villains and driven by his desire to fulfil a core promise from his 2016 campaign: that he would dramatically overhaul the US-China relationship. The confrontation is also fuelled by his willingness to flout the norms of presidential behaviour, including his suggestion on Tuesday that the Federal Reserve should assist his trade efforts by lowering interest rates.

"I don't see him crying uncle any time soon," said Mr Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who withdrew from consideration as a Trump Federal Reserve Board nominee amid an uproar. "It is a high-risk strategy, but it is not in his personality to back down. This goes back to what he said that first time he came down the escalator at Trump Tower."

There have been tensions in the White House, with some advisers uneasy with Mr Trump's strident nationalism and firm belief in tariffs as economic weapons. The disagreements reflect broader distress within Republican circles about his sharp rhetoric and refusal to budge.

Mr Trump was irritated on Sunday after National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow acknowledged on Fox News Sunday that American consumers end up paying for the administration's tariffs on Chinese imports, contradicting Mr Trump's claim that the Chinese foot the bill, officials said.

"Trump called Larry, and they had it out," according to one White House official who was not authorised to speak publicly. Two other officials, however, described the conversation as cordial.

Republicans close to the President have said they have come to accept his hard line, even if they do not share it. Mr Trump has worked to contain his current advisers as the negotiations have unfolded and present a united front to the Chinese, who he believes are looking for weakness, according to multiple officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions.

REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2019, with the headline 'Trump softens rhetoric, but officials say he will not budge'. Print Edition | Subscribe