US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer walks through a hotel lobby in Beijing on Wednesday as he and other Trump administration officials prepare to kick of trade talks. Photo: AFP
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer walks through a hotel lobby in Beijing on Wednesday as he and other Trump administration officials prepare to kick of trade talks. Photo: AFP

A growing sense of pessimism is hanging over trade talks between the US and China, currently underway in Beijing, but if China is worried, they aren’t showing it.

Last weekend, a group of foreign scholars and journalists, invited to meet top Chinese officials in Beijing, were delivered a clear message: trade war or not, China’s rise is now unstoppable.

That was the characterization given by Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, who was among those invited.

On the trade war front, Wolf recounted China’s message that “US goals in the trade talks are incomprehensible,” as we agreed with earlier today.

“People closely engaged in the trade talks are puzzled by what the US is after,” Wolf wrote. “Does Donald Trump even want a deal, they wonder, or is his aim just conflict.” They can join the ranks of people left guessing in the United States and Europe, where a consensus is emerging that the only thing certain about Trump’s trade policy is uncertainty, as the Washington Post argued yesterday.

What leaders in Beijing are not confused about is whether they are on strong enough footing to duke it out on trade, if push comes to shove.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, also invited to the event, quoted one Chinese attendee as saying, “No one can contain China anymore.”

“You hear that confidence in Beijing a lot today from Chinese: Our one-party system and unified society can take the pain of a trade war far longer than you Americans can,” Friedman said of what he heard on the trip. “And there is a trade imbalance today because we’ve been investing in our future and you Americans have been eating yours,” he wrote, paraphrasing a widely-held viewpoint among Chinese.

On the other side, the United States stands utterly divided on risking a trade war, with an important component of President Trump’s own political base – soybean producers – shaking in their boots at the prospect of their biggest customer cutting off purchases. It was reported on Wednesday, as the US trade delegation was arriving in Beijing, that China has already done just that.

“Whatever they’re buying is non-US,” Soren Schroder, CEO of the world’s biggest oilseed processor said in an interview with Bloomberg. “They’re buying beans in Canada, in Brazil, mostly Brazil, but very deliberately not buying anything from the US”

Meanwhile, political uncertainty grows in Washington as bombshell reports on legal matters involving Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, continue to drop on a daily basis. NBC news reported Thursday that Federal investigators tapped Cohen’s phones, and intercepted at least one phone call between the lawyer and someone in the White House.

Could that be why investigative reporter of Nixon’s Watergate scandal fame, Carl Bernstein, was also invited to that aforementioned event in Beijing?

“Did the Chinese want a separate session with him to get a master class in US politics and presidential legal jeopardy?” veteran China watcher Bill Bishop wrote in a newsletter blast this week.

Judging from Bernstein’s commentary on various legal issues regarding the president, anything he told officials in China would only increase their confidence in a trade fight. For one, Trump’s own party’s control of the House of Representatives is in jeopardy in upcoming midterm elections. The Republicans maintain an advantage on how voters view their handling of the economy, an advantage that could vanish if an all-out trade war blows up the global economy. Should they lose control to the Democrats, Trump would have fewer shields to protect him from legal problems. Chinese President Xi Jinping need not worry about trifling matters such as elections. He is trade negotiator for life.

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