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President Trump this week threatened China with new tariffs ahead of trade talks as negotiations faltered, said Ana Swanson and Keith Bradsher at The New York Times. For weeks, White House officials had suggested that a deal to end the year-long trade war was imminent. But "Chinese officials took a tough line in high-level trade negotiations last week in Beijing," infuriating Trump, who suggested they were trying to "renegotiate" commitments. Though levies on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods have not cut the trade deficit, Trump tweeted that he now intends to "tax nearly all of the products China exports to America" at a rate of 25 percent. Judging that "a full breakdown in talks may be difficult to repair," a 100-person Chinese delegation proceeded with plans for a scheduled meeting in Washington, said Chao Deng and Lingling Wei at The Wall Street Journal. But it's not clear they are ready to meet a U.S. demand that an agreement "lay out an inventory of laws and regulations that Beijing must revise."
That's why "Trump should be applauded for demanding that China go straight," said Michael Pillsbury, also at the Journal. China has a history of breaking promises made to the West, making enforcement mechanisms a "necessary precondition." Tariffs aren't good for anybody, but the president is right to threaten them "in response to China's bad-faith negotiation." Trump is also the first president "to do more than just name and shame Beijing" on intellectual property theft, said Robert Boxwell at the South China Morning Post. China has often demanded U.S. companies hand over patents and trade secrets in order to gain access to Chinese markets, chipping away at the U.S. lead in development and innovation. "It would be better to have no deal at all" than one that fails to address this.
"China wasn't ready for this trade war," said Yi-Zheng Lian at The New York Times, and Trump seems to have the upper hand. Almost any deal risks a serious loss of face for Chinese President Xi Jinping. He is "widely seen as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao," but on his watch China has earned a reputation as "a nation of patriotic thieves" eager to steal its way to world dominance. Any concessions China "is likely to make won't be mere tokens," and Trump will inevitably be the one bragging.
Trump is calling China's bluff, said Philip Levy at The Hill, but he's already lost similar wagers. Twice last year he demanded a deal before implementing tariffs, yet here we are. And China knows it's "dangerous politically for the U.S. president to endanger markets and economic growth" with more tariffs ahead of the 2020 election. The U.S. isn't really offering much — other than removing tariffs it imposed at the start, said David Fickling at Bloomberg. A long-standing complaint about China is that "commitments made in theory by Beijing are never enforced in practice," which is why the U.S. makes a big deal about enforcement mechanisms. But that's only part of Washington's "long list of asks." Even if the latest tough talk gets "a final deal over the line," it won't be the "grand bargain between the U.S. and China" that Trump wishes for.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try 8 issues for only $1 here.