After five months of constant escalations in their long-running trade war with the US, Chinese officials on Friday finally secured a respite. In return for a series of modest concessions, most of which had been offered by President Xi Jinping’s administration in previous negotiating rounds, Donald Trump agreed to suspend another set of tariff increases originally scheduled to take effect on October 15. The truce sets the stage for a series of much higher-stakes negotiations after Mr Xi and Mr Trump’s expected encounter on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Conference, scheduled for November 16-17 in Santiago, Chile, where Friday’s agreement will be finalised.
The two sides are still a long way from a final settlement that addresses much more contentious issues, such as Chinese government support for strategic industries and state-owned enterprises, which Mr Trump had hoped to reach before his 2020 re-election campaign kicks off in earnest. Chinese negotiators, however, believe that time is on their side and they can continue to stonewall Mr Trump and his lead negotiator, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, on any “systemic” reforms that they fear would weaken the Chinese Communist party’s grip over the world’s second-largest economy.
In private, Chinese officials say they are lucky Mr Trump waited a year before launching his trade assault in the spring of 2018, giving his negotiators only about 18 months to confront China before domestic political pressures would begin to hem them in. The US president wants relief for his farm-state supporters, who have borne the brunt of China’s counter-tariffs, and a soaring stock market to help boost his re-election prospects.
“The US economy is under pressure and Mr Trump is facing an election,” says one Chinese official. “Previously Trump wanted to ratchet up tensions but now he needs to lower them.”