9 months on: Are we closer to a trade deal?

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Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish, key member of the U.S. trade delegation to China, leaves a hotel in Beijing, China January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A group of US officials led by US Deputy Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish are due in Beijing Monday and Tuesday for negotiations with the Chinese side. On Friday local time, US President Donald Trump said he was confident Beijing and Washington would reach a deal to bring to a close the months-long trade dispute. Noting that talks are underway with China “at the highest levels,” Mr Trump said, “I think we will make a deal with China. I really think they want to. I think they sort of have to.”

This statement conveyed the tone of the US side’s evaluation of the prospects of China-US trade negotiations: Washington is optimistic over a possible trade deal with Beijing and it is emphasizing that China hopes to reach the agreement.

However, the overall situation of the negotiations is much more than this simple assessment. One significant factor touched upon lightly by US media is that a deal ending the trade war is not only China’s will, but also that of the US.

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China’s stance has been consistent from the very beginning: It would be a good thing to achieve an agreement, but it knows the result cannot be forced. Otherwise China would not time and again counterattack with its own tariffs against US tariffs on Chinese goods. In other words, if Beijing had wanted to raise the white flag, it would have done so already. The longer the trade war continues, the less unrealistic expectations the outside world should hold for China.

The trade war has lasted nine months. One thing is getting increasingly clear: A trade war leads to losses on both, even multiple, sides. No country benefits. The US is indeed the most powerful country, but in a trade war, there is no winner-takes-all scenario. Washington’s losses appear slower, but what will be will be.

Given the trade volume and controversies between the two countries, if they want to realize the deal in the less than two months left of the 90-day truce, the key is to implement the consensus reached by the two heads of state.

A good China-US trade agreement that can stand the test of time must be fair and realistic. Most of it will be carried out by nongovernmental actors of the two sides. They lack channels to forcefully promote any impractical policies to the ordinary people. Mutual respect for one another’s interests is required by the very nature of China-US trade. It is hoped the latest round of talks can succeed on this basis.

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