trade war

Trump’s Big Tariff Threat Against China Is Officially a Flop

Trump’s time out is over. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

President Trump has backed down on his threat to impose new tariffs in his trade war with China, and will once again allow U.S. companies to sell to Huawei. He announced the big about-face after a long meeting with President Xi Jinping at the G20 on Saturday in which the two leaders agreed to restart trade-deal negotiations.

The president said that existing U.S. tariffs on goods from China, which currently target $250 billion worth of exports, would remain in place, but he would hold off (for the “time being”) on imposing new ones.

Ahead of the last round of trade talks, the president had vowed to impose tariffs on an additional $300 billion worth of goods if China didn’t agree to a deal. He didn’t impose them, but kept up with the threat anyway. The tariffs, if implemented, would have meant targeting almost everything China exports to the U.S. Paired with China’s retaliatory tariffs, they could have had a significant negative impact on the global economy, on U.S. businesses and consumers, and on President Trump’s reelection chances.

Now, six weeks of stalemate later, Trump seems to have been forced to realize that his big threat was met with a big “meh.”

Huawei has been another major point of contention between the U.S. and China. The Chinese telecommunications giant, which U.S. intelligence officials have called a national-security threat, was blacklisted by the Commerce Department a month ago. But on Saturday, Trump went another way, announcing that Huawei would be able to buy U.S. technology again while negotiations proceeded — but only “equipment where there’s no great national security problem with it,” whatever that means. (They mostly buy U.S. computer chips.)

The move also may have permanently undercut U.S. credibility on why Huawei was targeted, according to Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia:

When you tell the world one day Huawei is a security threat and then reverse that argument the next day, you undermine the veracity of the initial security claim, and make it much harder for anyone to believe your security concern in the future.

Here In Beijing, many believe that Trump was using security concerns about Huawei to justify USG intervention in markets to help American companies. Trump reversal on Huawei confirms that hypothesis.

And for the trifecta, there was an immigration-stance reversal as well. In his press conference, the president addressed China’s concerns about the U.S. recently making it harder for Chinese students to obtain visas to study at American universities. Trump insisted the students were welcome in the U.S. and said he hoped they would stick around after they graduated, offering them permanent residency via a “smart persons waiver” (possibly referring to an Employment-Based Extraordinary Ability Green Card, or EB-1 Visa — which is the one Trump’s wife, Melania, got.)

And what did the U.S. get? Per the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Trump touted China’s willingness to buy large amounts of U.S. farm goods as a big benefit of the truce. He said China would begin immediate purchases of American goods and will be “spending money even during the negotiations.” On Friday, before Messrs. Trump and Xi sat down for their discussions, China purchased 544,000 metric tons of soybeans, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. … The Trump administration has made billions of dollars in payments to compensate farmers for lost sales. At the press briefing, Mr. Trump called farmers “green patriots.”

So the president doesn’t seem to have gotten much of anything from China in exchange for the concessions, other than an agreement to return to the negotiating table and farm-goods sales, which China probably already wanted to make (and which offset U.S. government reimbursements to farmers screwed over by the trade war.)

The concessions also led to a rare moment of ideological unity between Senator Marco Rubio and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who both attacked the deal:

Then again, this isn’t the first time Xi has extracted an unlikely concession from Trump regarding a shady Chinese tech company — last year, Trump rescued ZTE from a Commerce Department blacklist at Xi’s request, too.

As Intelligencer’s Josh Barro recently reminded us, “Over the last two-plus years, Trump’s overwhelming pattern on trade has been to chicken out, and the Chinese have taken note of this.” And that was before he launched and then canceled a war with Iran.

“I’m not rushed,” Trump maintained during his press conference on Saturday, spinning the trade-war process as a victory in itself since, he claimed, earlier deals by U.S. presidents with China were so bad they couldn’t be called deals at all. He also insisted the two countries were now “back on track.”

Few seem optimistic about where that track leads, however. The deescalation will be welcome news to the trade-war-wary global markets and among the U.S. businesses and farmers that the tariffs would have hit the hardest. It may also be a temporary relief, as there is no indication that the 12th round of trade negotiations between the U.S. and China will be any more productive than the previous 11 have been over the last two years. Barring some dramatic compromise or capitulation, and factoring in the president’s fetish for trade-tariff power-talk, it’s probably a matter of when, not if, Trump issues a new tariff threat. Just don’t expect China to believe it.

It’s also possible, as Politico noted Saturday, that Trump is extra motivated to compromise now that he’s campaigning for reelection with some big promises still unfulfilled. He has not built a wall along the U.S. southern border (though his administration’s war on immigrants has had a dramatic impact otherwise.) And he has not delivered a better and tougher trade deal with China, something he assured supporters he was uniquely qualified to do. Instead, Trump made at least some of those supporters collateral damage in his trade war while demonstrating time and time again that his real “art of the deal” is the art of loudly pretending to be someone who understands what the art of the deal is.

This post was updated to include commentary from former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul.

Trump’s Big Tariff Threat Against China Is Officially a Flop