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No ‘Phase-2' US-China deal on the horizon, officials say

Reuters WASHINGTON | Updated on November 25, 2019 Published on November 25, 2019

An ambitious “phase two” trade deal between the United States and China is looking less likely as the two countries struggle to strike a preliminary “phase one” agreement, according to US and Beijing officials, lawmakers and trade experts.

In October, US President Donald Trump said during a press conference with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He that he expected to quickly dive into a second phase of talks once “Phase-1” had been completed. The second phase would focus on a key US complaint that China effectively steals US intellectual property by forcing US companies to transfer their technology to Chinese rivals, he said at the time.

Also read: US and China in foothills of a cold war, says Henry Kissinger

But the November 2020 US presidential election, the difficulties in getting the first-stage done, combined with the White House's reluctance to work with other countries to pressure Beijing are dimming hopes for anything more ambitious in the near future, the sources said.

The 16-month trade war with China has thrown US businesses and farmers into turmoil, disrupted global supply chains and been a drag on economies worldwide. Failure to address a key reason it was started is already raising questions about whether the sacrifice has been worth it. Meanwhile, many of Beijing's trade practices that many free-market economies see as unfair remain unaddressed.

Reuters had reported that the signing of a Phase-1 deal could slide into next year as the two countries tussle over Beijing's demand for more extensive tariff rollbacks.

‘Trump wants to sign deals’

Officials in Beijing say they don't anticipate sitting down to discuss a phase two deal before the US election, in part because they want to wait to see if Trump wins a second term. “It's Trump who wants to sign these deals, not us. We can wait,” one Chinese official told Reuters.

Representative Jim Costa, a California Democrat who sits on two key agricultural committees, said in Congress on Wednesday that “pragmatic” Chinese sources had told him the same thing.

Trump's main priority at the moment is to secure a big Phase-1 announcement, locking in big-ticket Chinese purchases of US agricultural goods that he can tout as an important win during his re-election campaign, according to a Trump administration official.

After that, China could recede somewhat on Trump's policy agenda as he turns to domestic issues, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He will probably leave other major contentious issues to senior aides, who are likely to continue pushing Beijing over the theft of US intellectual property, its militarization of the South China Sea and its human rights record, the official said.

“As soon as we finish phase one we're going to start negotiating Phase-2,” a second administration official said. “As far as timing around when a Phase-2 deal could be completed, that's not something I can speculate on.”

The hard stuff

The Trump White House initially laid out ambitious plans to restructure the United States' relationship with China, including addressing what a 2018 United States Trade Representative investigation concluded were Beijing's “unfair, unreasonable, and market-distorting practices.”

There is broad bipartisan support for Trump's drive to hold China accountable for years of economic espionage, cyber attacks, forced technology transfer and dumping of low-priced goods made with hefty government subsidies.

But many of these critical concerns will not be addressed in the Phase-1 agreement, which focuses on China agricultural product buys, tariff roll backs, and includes some intellectual property pledges. “That's the easy stuff,” said Costa. The harder issues are “industrial espionage, copyrights, complying with those issues, privacy and security issues”.

Further complicating the issue, Trump's economic advisers are split: some are pushing Trump to agree to a quick Phase-1 deal to appease markets and business executives, others want him to push for a more comprehensive agreement.

Beijing officials, meanwhile, are balking at pursuing larger structural changes to managing China's economy, anxious not to appear to be kowtowing to US interests.

Key problem

Both China and the United States have a clear interest in getting a Phase-1 deal completed relatively soon to soothe markets and assuage domestic policy concerns, said Matthew Goodman, a former US government official and trade expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

He sees a good chance that the two sides will hammer out some phase one deal, but is far less convinced that a broader deal can be reached before the election. One key problem, he said, was the continued lack of a coherent US strategy for dealing with China.

“I think phase one probably will happen because both presidents want it,” Goodman said at a Congressional briefing last week. But he said China was less willing now to make structural changes that might have been possible in the spring. ”They're not going to do those things,” he said.

Josh Kallmer, a former official with the US Trade Representative's office and now executive vice president of the Information Technology Industry Council, said it was “technically possible, but hard to imagine” that the United States and Beijing could negotiate a Phase-2 deal in the next year.

The United States needs better coordination with its allies to pressure China to make urgently needed structural changes, including ending the forced transfer of technology and better intellectual property protections, trade experts and former officials say.

Europe and other US allies have been reluctant to join Washington's pressure campaign on Beijing, partly due to frustration with the administration's focus on unilateral action and in part due to their reliance on Chinese investment. “We need an international coalition to successfully attack phase two,” said Kellie Meiman Hock, managing partner at McLarty Associates, a trade consulting group in Washington.

Published on November 25, 2019
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