President Donald Trump said that talks with China on the first phase of a trade deal were near completion after negotiators from both sides spoke by phone, signalling progress on an accord in the works for nearly two years.
“We’re in the final throes of a very important deal,” Mr Trump told reporters on Tuesday at the White House. “It’s going very well.”
The president said in a later interview that he’s holding up the trade deal to ensure better terms for the US.
“I’m holding it up because it’s got to be a good deal,” he said. “We can’t make a deal that’s like, even. We have to make a deal where we do much better, because we have to catch up.”
Mr Trump announced October 11 that he had reached the outlines of a “substantial” but partial deal that would see China ramp up purchases of US farm goods, make new commitments to protect US intellectual property, refrain from manipulating its currency and further open its financial sector to foreign investors. Since then, the two sides have been wrangling over how to put the deal on paper and what tariffs the US will drop in exchange.
The negotiations have been complicated by strong support in the US for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong and China’s suspicions that the US. is feeding unrest in the territory. Mr Trump that the US wanted to see things “go well in Hong Kong” but added that he was confident of a good outcome.
Chinese President Xi Jinping “can make that happen,” Mr Trump said. “I know him and I know he’d like to make it happen.”
Mr Trump’s comments came after officials on both sides signalled talks were back on track towards an interim deal after negotiators from the world’s two largest economies spoke by telephone.
Negotiators are “getting really close” to completing the first phase, White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway said. She told reporters that the sides continue to negotiate sticking points including forced technology transfer and alleged theft of intellectual property, adding that “things like this take awhile".
In a statement, China’s Ministry of Commerce said officials “reached consensus on properly resolving relevant issues” and agreed to stay in contact on the remaining points in phase one. The US Trade Representative’s office confirmed a conversation took place, but declined to comment on the contents.
Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin discussed core concerns, according to China’s statement, which didn’t provide further details.
As the phase-one talks progress through the final stages, sources said the contours will include US assurances of no additional tariffs and the rollback of existing ones — a key Chinese demand. The American side wants Beijing’s pledge of billions in purchases of US commodities — a deliverable Mr Trump wants for his rural base. A date and place to sign the deal still hasn’t been decided.
Stocks in Asia gained and US equities touched new highs on optimism that the countries won’t escalate a tariff war that’s dragged on for 20 months and involves about $500 billion (Dh1.8bn) in products traded between them.
Talks on the limited deal have continued since it was first announced in October, with both sides making concessions recently on issues such as food imports, intellectual property and tech giant Huawei Technologies. Mr Liu, China’s chief negotiator, said last week that he was “cautiously optimistic” about concluding a phase one deal, but the lack of a deadline and comments from Mr Trump and others have led to speculation that talks could extend into next year.
If a phase-one deal does not materialise before December 15, Mr Trump will have to choose whether to carry out his previous threat to impose 15 per cent tariffs on some $160bn in imports from China.
Mr Trump said last week that a trade deal with China “can’t be like an even deal” because the US is “starting off from the floor” and China is “already at the ceiling".
“Key is what happens if we do not get a deal by 15 December,” said Khoon Goh, head of Asia research at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group in Singapore. “Will the US agree to suspend the tariffs out of goodwill?”
Mr Trump is also facing questions at home over how meaningful an interim deal will be and whether it will lead to further rounds of negotiations.
Even if a first phase deal is signed, it is expected to skirt more difficult issues such as US concern about Chinese industrial subsidies and other forms of protectionism. Similarly, from the Chinese side it is unlikely to address what Beijing sees as systematic American attempts to shut out Chinese technology companies from the US market over security threats as well as their access to American components.
The US Commerce Department on Tuesday released new proposed rules that would give it the power to restrict US imports of foreign technology and their use in domestic supply chains and infrastructure.