One of President Donald Trump’s most persistent economic promises has been to rewrite the U.S. relationship with China. Yet as he approaches a potential deal, some of the very hawks who have cheered on Trump’s trade war already fear he may end up falling short.
With a March 1 deadline to either complete a deal or raise U.S. tariffs, hard-liners inside and outside the administration fret Trump is being outplayed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and seduced by what they see as empty promises.
After Trump hosted Chinese Vice Premier Liu He at the White House last week, one administration official privately likened the direction of negotiations to the president’s caving to Democrats in the shutdown battle over funding for a border wall. Another person close to the talks said Trump appeared determined to turn a pile of crumbs offered by China into what at best might turn out to be a slice of bread.
The concerns are driven by what some aides and others see as Trump’s appetite to strike a deal to calm financial markets. They are also — as seems to almost always be the case with the China trade conflict — embodied by soybeans.
During his meeting with Liu, Trump hailed a Chinese offer to buy 5 million tons of soybeans, the most tangible outcome of two days of talks. Only what Trump saw as an extraordinary mountain of beans was little more than what once would have been an ordinary foothill. It also did nothing to remove the underlying cause — Chinese retaliatory tariffs — of last year’s collapse in U.S. soy exports to China.
In a normal year, China buys about 35 million tons of soybeans from the U.S. So far this year China’s purchases have been 20 percent of what they were in the last marketing year, according to the American Farm Bureau.
Trump has repeatedly denigrated past presidents’ efforts to deal with China. He last week vowed to negotiate a “comprehensive” trade deal that would include meaningful changes in economic policy and bring an end to the theft of U.S. intellectual property.
But there are also questions over the form any agreement will take and how enduring it may be.
“A real deal still has to take shape,” said Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.”Everything between now and when the U.S. delegation goes to Beijing is 100 percent noise.”