China promises swift action on trade, but mystery still surrounds the agreement between Trump and Xi

A newspaper headline in Beijing says President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed not to increase tariffs, but complex negotiations lie ahead.
(Greg Baker / AFP/Getty Images)

The few words offered by China’s Ministry of Commerce on Wednesday about a deal with the United States to temporarily suspend tariff increases expressed confidence but provided little clarity on just what President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping negotiated at a weekend dinner.

“It was a very successful meeting, and we are very confident in the implementation,” a Ministry of Commerce spokesman said in a brief statement posted on the agency’s website.

The unnamed spokesman’s remarks acknowledged for the first time that the ceasefire was set at 90 days, but they did not indicate when that would start and end. And the statement offered few hints on what China would do to satisfy the Trump administration’s concerns about China’s mercantilist economic practices.


Investors initially reacted with enthusiasm after the Saturday meeting that followed the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires and the news that Trump and Xi had agreed to a truce in an escalating trade conflict, which has cast a pall over the U.S. and global economies. But the two sides did not put out a joint statement, and conflicting statements and a lack of details from China since then have raised concerns about the outlook for negotiations.

On Tuesday, after Trump went on Twitter and called himself “a Tariff Man,” stock markets fell sharply. Markets were closed Wednesday in the United States to honor the death of President George H.W. Bush.

In an early-morning series of tweets Wednesday, Trump again insisted his meeting with Xi was a success, despite criticisms from some corners that he had fallen for Chinese delay tactics by agreeing to hold off on ratcheting up tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods Jan. 1 to 25% from the current 10% rate.

“Very strong signals being sent by China once they returned home from their long trip, including stops, from Argentina,” Trump wrote. “Not to sound naive or anything, but I believe President Xi meant every word of what he said at our long and hopefully historic meeting. ALL subjects discussed!”

The White House said in a statement Saturday that the tariff increase would take effect in 90 days if negotiations fail to produce a deal on important issues such as market barriers, forced technology transfers and cyberthefts.

It said China would buy a “very substantial amount of agricultural, energy, industrial and other product” to address the large trade imbalance between the two countries.


The next day, Trump tweeted that Beijing also “has agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S.”

But the official Chinese account of the agreement has been much more general. It made no mention of specific products that China would buy from the United States, or about cutting the current 40% tariff on imported American cars. And it was only Wednesday that Beijing officially noted that there was a timetable for the truce.

The Trump administration, for its part, has only added to the confusion. Trump’s top economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, who was at the dinner meeting, said Monday that the 90-day deferral of higher tariffs would start Jan. 1, meaning the two sides would have at least until the end of March before Trump boosted the punitive taxes. But later that day the White House said the 90-day clock began Dec. 1.

Kudlow and other administration officials also could not confirm any specific deal that had been reached on car tariffs. This summer China reduced its import tariffs on cars to 15% from 25%, but bumped it up to 40% for American autos in retaliation for new U.S. tariffs.

From the China side, one possible reason for the lack of detail is that Xi has been overseas, completing a state visit in Portugal.

The Ministry of Commerce spokesman, in answering a reporter’s question, said Wednesday that there had been consensus between Trump and Xi on certain issues and that China would move ahead, “the sooner the better,” but did not elaborate.


“Both teams will follow a very clear timetable and road map, to actively promote the consultation within 90 days.”

Separately, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also expressed hopes of a deal to end the trade war.

“We hope the two working teams from both sides can, based on the consensus reached between the two countries’ leaders, strengthen consultations and reach a mutually beneficial agreement soon,” spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Wednesday.

Geng also indicated that Chinese government agencies had adopted an order to strengthen punishment for infringing on intellectual property. Chinese theft of intellectual property has been a long-running complaint from the United States and other countries. The order was dated Nov. 21 but released only this week, according to the foreign ministry. Geng would not say whether the timing had anything to do with the Trump-Xi meeting.

Some reports emerged Wednesday suggesting that China may be ready to move ahead with some trade concessions. The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong reported that Chinese officials were preparing to resume imports of U.S. soybeans and liquefied petroleum gas — something Trump took note of Wednesday on Twitter.

Reuters reported Chinese state-owned oil trading firm Unipec would resume imports of U.S. oil by March, also citing unnamed sources.


Such measures might be seen as good-faith gestures as negotiations unfold, but would not meet Washington’s demands for broad changes to China’s industrial policy, including its state support for key high-tech industrial firms and forced transfers of technology by U.S. companies doing business in China.

China’s Made in China 2025 plan — Xi’s ambitious policy to see China emerge as a global leader in key high-tech industries — is perceived in Washington as a threat to the United States’ global power, as is his Belt and Road infrastructure initiative that has extended China’s reach across the world as it offers loans and underwrites building projects in dozens of nations.

Dixon reported from Beijing and Lee from Washington.

Twitter: @RobynDixon_LAT



3:45 p.m.: This article was updated with details of the trade negotiations and background on the U.S.-China trade war.

This article was originally published at 11:10 a.m.