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U.S. will keep many China tariffs in place even after trade deal kicks in

 Robert Lighthizer and Steven Mnuchin in the Oval Office
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, foreground left, and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin attend an Oval Office meeting with President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He on Oct. 11, 2019.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Existing tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods coming into the U.S. are likely to stay in place until after the American presidential election, and any move to reduce them will hinge on Beijing’s compliance with the terms of a so-called Phase 1 trade accord, people familiar with the matter said.

The two sides have an understanding that no sooner than 10 months after the signing of the agreement at the White House on Wednesday, the U.S. will review progress and potentially consider additional cuts on tariffs affecting $360 billion of imports from China, the people said, requesting anonymity because the matter is private.

The period of review, which isn’t expected to be specified in the deal’s text, is intended to give the Trump administration time to verify the Asian nation’s adherence to the terms of the pact, the people said. It won’t affect a halving of the 15% tariff on about $120 billion in Chinese goods announced in December that is still due to go ahead.

After the first phase takes effect, the U.S. will maintain 25% tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese imports and a 7.5% levy on another $120 billion. China didn’t commit to specific tariff reductions of its own under the agreement, but instead has vowed to exempt certain U.S. products from its duties in order to meet the purchasing targets laid out in the deal.

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The Asian nation has also committed to increasing purchases of American farm goods such as soybeans and pork, and making new commitments on intellectual property, forced technology transfer and currency.

The news that any further reduction in tariffs would be unlikely until after November’s presidential election wiped out gains in U.S. stock markets on Tuesday after major benchmarks had hit fresh records. Treasury yields dipped and the dollar fell versus the yen.

Officials have said before they will release the text of the 86-page agreement in conjunction with the signing and denied that there’s a plan to cut duties further.

“The only nonpublic component of the agreement is a confidential annex with detailed purchase amounts, which has been previously described,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in a joint emailed response to questions. “There are no other oral or written agreements between the U.S. and China on these matters, and there is no agreement for future reduction in tariffs.”

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Administration officials have played down any damage to the U.S. economy that the tariffs are causing. In a column for the Wall Street Journal published Tuesday, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro said mainstream economists including at the Federal Reserve were failing to account properly for what he said were the beneficial economic effects of the duties.

“Americans should welcome this analysis warmly — especially in the heartland, where the ugly predictions of the anti-tariff forecasters seem so out of touch with the beautiful realities of the Trump economy,” he wrote.

Farm prices are down, bankruptcies are up, farm equipment is getting more expensive and export markets are fading away: Is there anything to like about the impact President Trump has had on the agricultural economy of the United States?

In recent days, the administration has also been working in other ways to lay the groundwork for the deal and the negotiations on stickier issues such as China’s vast system of industrial subsidies that are expected to be included in the next phase of talks.

On Monday, the Trump administration reversed a decision to label China a currency manipulator in what was widely seen as a concession to Beijing. The U.S., European Union and Japan also announced that they had reached agreement on proposed new global rules for industrial subsidies in a move that will increase pressure on Beijing over the issue.

Meanwhile, Vice Premier Liu He, who will be signing the deal on China’s behalf, met with American business leaders including Tom Donohue, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and officials from the U.S.-China Business Council ahead of Wednesday’s ceremony. Negotiators from both sides are due to have dinner together Tuesday.

The U.S. agreed not to go ahead with a new tranche of tariffs in December and to reduce the rate on the $120 billion of Chinese products as part of the deal. But the fate of the remaining duties has been unclear, with economists saying they are likely to continue to be a drag on both economies.

The revised trade deal with Mexico and Canada passed by the House represents a fundamental shift in policy toward more managed trade.

Intrigue surrounding the accord is high because the White House has gone to unusual lengths to prevent public scrutiny of the terms in advance of its enactment. Congressional staff have been required to read the agreement in secure facilities at the Capitol and haven’t been provided copies, and for more than a month U.S. officials have said they were still working on translating the terms to and from Chinese.

The timetable would allow President Trump to keep existing levies in place until after voters decide whether he should get a second term, pushing off an issue that could prove objectionable to his core supporters. Trump has claimed the duties on China as one of his greatest economic achievements, labeling himself a “Tariff Man.”

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Relief on duties is also a sensitive matter for financial markets, which have gyrated during the course of the two-year dispute that’s raised uncertainty about the outlook for the global economy.

The presidential election is set for Nov. 3.


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