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Trump backpedals on China threats as trade deal shows signs of slipping away

By TAYLOR TELFORD, DAMIAN PALETTA AND DAVID J. LYNCH | The Washington Post | Published: July 30, 2019

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday said a new trade deal with China might not come until after the 2020 election, a significant departure from more than a year of trying to exert pressure on the world's second-largest economy.

His comments were the latest in a series of rapidly evolving, and sometime contradictory, strategic shifts. Less than two months ago, he announced that a huge crackdown against China was imminent. On Tuesday, he suggested that further action could be more than a year away, and everything could change based on whether he is reelected.

In a series of tweets, Trump accused China of delaying negotiations, which began in earnest last December. Even as Trump's chief trade advisers resumed talks in Shanghai, the president's tweets suggested a deal may be farther away than it had seemed in recent months.

"My team is negotiating with them now, but they always change the deal in the end to their benefit," Trump tweeted. "They should probably wait out our Election to see if we get one of the Democrat stiffs like Sleepy Joe," he added, using a nickname he had assigned to presidential candidate Joe Biden.

"The problem with them waiting, however, is that if & when I win, the deal that they get will be much tougher than what we are negotiating now . . . or no deal at all," he tweeted.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 70 points in early trading before recovering somewhat to end the day 23 points lower. The Standard & Poor's 500 index and Nasdaq also fell.

Some influential business leaders are growing worried at the lack of progress in the talks, which the administration in May said were on the verge of a historic deal before collapsing. Despite Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreeing last month to restart negotiations, the bargaining has been slow to resume.

"The two sides are still trying to figure out how to get back to the table," said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We were close in May. Now the ground has gotten shakier."

Several Chamber executives were in Beijing earlier this month for talks with Chinese officials, warning them against waiting for a better deal after the 2020 election. A prolonged delay risks the appearance of new issues that could complicate hopes for a comprehensive deal, Brilliant said.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are expected to meet Xi before leaving Shanghai on Wednesday. Such a meeting would be seen as an indication that China is ready to bargain seriously, Brilliant said.

Trump is trying to simultaneously negotiate multiple complicated trade deals, stretching his team thin and raising fears among business executives that he doesn't have the bandwidth to deliver on his many promises. An effort to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement has bogged down in Congress. Trump has also threatened the leaders of the European Union and Japan with tariffs if concessions aren't made. And he has said he is trying to speed along a trade deal with the United Kingdom to help it complete a withdrawal from the E.U. None of these initiatives has been completed, and none appears close to completion.

But the China talks have long been Trump's primary focus.

Trump first flagged the possibility of trade talks dragging beyond the 2020 Elections on Friday, but his decision to repeat the claim Tuesday rattled investors because it seemed deliberate.

China is one of the U.S.'s largest trading partners, and U.S. companies import more than $500 billion in goods from China each year. Trump has alleged that China uses unfair trade practices, such as manipulating its currency, stealing U.S. intellectual property, and flooding global markets with cheap products, to gain an advantage over U.S. firms. He had tried to exert pressure on Chinese officials to agree to quick concessions, but that strategy has changed in recent days with his signal that talks might have to wait until 2021.

This is at least the second big part of Trump's economic agenda that he has signaled likely won't be accomplished in his first term. He has recently told advisers that he won't be able to focus on spending cuts until after his reelection, and cutting the budget was one of his core campaign promises.

What began with tariffs on steel last summer has metastasized into a massive trade conflict that has affected two of the most powerful engines in the global economy. In tweets, Trump crowed about the China's economic slowdown, claiming the nation had lost millions of jobs because of his tariffs.

"China is doing very badly, worst year in 27," Trump tweeted. "China has lost 5 million jobs and two million manufacturing jobs due to Trump tariffs. Trumps got China back on its heels, and the United States is doing great."

Although Trump maintains the drawn-out conflict is mostly hurting China, experts say the trade war is damaging the U.S. economy and possibly fueling a global slowdown. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has pointed to head winds from the trade war as a primary reason the central bank could cut interest rates by the time its two-day meeting ends Wednesday.

In January, the World Economic Forum predicted the trade war could reduce global gross domestic product growth by 0.7 percentage points to 2.8 percent in 2019. And in a recent research note, Morgan Stanley's chief economist warned that the trade war could spur a global recession within a year.

Trump and Xi met in Argentina last year and agreed to negotiate a broad trade deal. The president wants China to purchase more U.S. products, impose strict intellectual property rules, halt subsidies for China-backed companies, and open its markets to American companies.

He first set a March 1 deadline for the talks, but repeatedly granted extensions while negotiations progressed. Then, in May, Trump more than doubled tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods after accusing China of reneging on its commitments.

The president also threatened to impose tariffs on a further $300 billion or so in Chinese goods.

At the G-20 leaders summit in Japan last month, Trump again met with Xi. Trump agreed to postpone new tariffs and claimed that China had agreed to purchase "almost immediately" a large amount of U.S. farm products. Those purchases have yet to occur.

Trump wrote Tuesday that China "was supposed to start buying our agricultural product now - no signs they are doing so. That is the problem with China, they just don't come through."

Chinese officials appear to be under less pressure to cut a deal than they were a few months ago. They also have sent signals that Trump's repeated threats are not working.

Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the nationalist Global Times, a state-owned news organization in China, fired back at Trump on Tuesday.

"Whenever it's time to negotiate, the US side comes up with the trick of piling pressure. Really not a good habit," he wrote. "Americans need to change their negotiating style, show more sincerity, not just wield stick. The past one and half years have proved big stick is useless to China."

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