American trade deals typically stretch to thousands of pages. The new “phase one” trade deal between America and China takes up only 86. Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) gave journalists a glimpse of it on December 13th, hours after it had been agreed. And he said that after a few weeks of checks for legal errors and inconsistencies it would be published. He expected that it would then be signed in the first week of the new year.
That a deal exists in writing is good news. Even better, both the Chinese and the Americans seem to be on roughly the same page. At a press conference in Beijing, Wang Shouwen, the Chinese deputy representative of international trade negotiations, described a text with nine chapters, including ones on intellectual property, technology transfer, financial services, “expanding trade” and dispute settlement. A different Chinese official said that in this first phase the Americans had promised to cancel some of its tariffs. Mr Lighthizer specified that this meant cancellation of tariffs due on December 15th, and that tariffs of 15% on around $120bn of imports would be reduced to 7.5%.
On some details, Mr Lighthizer was more forthcoming than the Chinese. In return for the tariff reductions, he said that China would be ramping up by $200bn over two years its imports from America of agricultural products, manufactured goods, energy products and services. Negotiators had set out targets for categories of commodities, so that Chinese agricultural purchases from America would rise from a baseline of $24bn in 2017 to at least $40bn in 2020 and 2021, and perhaps even higher. But those figures would be kept secret, in case they had an impact on markets.
These managed-trade arrangements will attract plenty of well-deserved criticism. It is hard to see how China could meet its targets while keeping its commitments of non-discrimination made under the World Trade Organisation’s rules. Joe Glauber of the International Food Policy Research Institute, formerly chief economist of the US Department of Agriculture, warns that countries such as Brazil, Canada and Australia will have tough questions to ask. He also questions the decision to keep the numerical targets secret, asking “how else would producers get signals on what to plant?” In any case, the targets seem high enough that they will certainly distort economic flows, and leave American producers even more vulnerable to another breakdown in relations.
China, for its part, does not like the idea of becoming so heavily reliant on America for its imports of commodities such as soyabeans. And it had long insisted that it was unrealistic for Mr Trump to demand that it double its purchases of agricultural products from America. Intriguingly, China demurred from mentioning any hard targets in its statements about the trade deal. Is China embarrassed about having made such a large unwanted concession? Or are the purchase agreements are not as rock-solid as American officials have made them out to be? That will become clearer when the agreement is published.
It does seem as though the Chinese have made some healthy promises to open up their markets. Mr Lighthizer boasted of commitments on intellectual property that were “similar”, albeit narrower, than those in the USMCA, a recently agreed trade deal between America, Mexico and Canada. On the issue of forced technology transfers, which was at the heart of America’s first tariff action in this trade war, he said that the Chinese authorities had agreed not to ask companies to hand over their technology as part of the process of securing a licence to do business. If implemented, this would represent significant progress. Jake Parker of the US-China Business Council, a lobby group representing American companies operating in China, notes that this type of technology transfer was the biggest concern for many of his group’s members.
In their press conference the Chinese insisted that their commitments were in line with their broader economic strategy of opening up, and would help improve the business environment. Indeed, cynics will note that many of the reforms apparently linked to the deal are ones that China has already started implementing in recent years, raising questions about whether the nearly two-year-long trade battle has truly moved the needle for Chinese economic policy. On whether the deal would make a difference, Mr Lighthizer said that though he thought it would, it was probably wise to say “we’ll see”. Without more details, it is hard to assess its scope.
Until the deal is signed on the dotted line, the threat of renewed trade hostilities will linger. Even after that, the deal’s enforcement provisions will cause some anxiety. Ultimately Mr Lighthizer will be the one to decide whether China has broken its commitments, not an independent arbiter. And, in forming his view, he will be able to consider evidence based on anonymous complaints from American companies. This fixes a real problem, which is companies’ fear of retaliation leading them to hold their tongues in front of the authorities. But it comes with a risk, of making the Chinese feel that they are being accused of a problem they can neither verify nor easily fix. And it means that it is not hard to see how tensions might escalate again.
The Chinese do have an incentive to play along. Both sides said that the success of the first phase of talks would determine success in the second, which would presumably unlock further tariff cuts. The Americans seem to want to go further too. On December 13th Mr Lighthizer spoke of climbing a huge mountain a little bit at a time. The summit is still some way off.