Flags fly at the ZTE offices. Photo: Reuters / Bobby Yip
Flags fly at the ZTE offices. Photo: Reuters / Bobby Yip

The Trump administration and China have reportedly come to an agreement that would allow US firms to sell crucial components to Chinese telecoms giant ZTE. The reversal would be tantamount to a stay of execution for the Chinese national champion after the ban on sales threatened to cripple the company’s operations.

The Wall Street Journal reported the development on Tuesday, citing sources who cautioned the details are still in flux and the agreement is not a done deal. Backing off the harsh penalties is a key ask on the part of Beijing in ongoing trade negotiations.

One hurdle finalizing such an agreement will face is the backlash from Trump’s political allies, including those in the friendly media that informs his base and members of his party in Congress. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been among the most outspoken critics of coming to an agreement on ZTE, threatening via twitter that any deal would face a legal challenge from lawmakers.

“If this is true, then administration has surrendered to #China on #ZTE Making changes to their board & a fine won’t stop them from spying & stealing from us,” Rubio wrote. “But this is too important to be over. We will begin working on veto-proof congressional action,” he warned.

A chorus of criticism from conservative media followed Trump’s initial tweet last week suggesting he was looking to lift the ban on ZTE, and the report of an imminent deal on Tuesday prompted renewed criticism from traditional Trump allies.

Trade advisor to Trump’s campaign and transition Dan DiMarco lambasted the White House U-turn in the trade negotiations on Twitter.

“Chinese r laughing all the way 2 the head of the class. They have never delivered on 1 promise in the past. Appeasement is the devils friend,” DiMarco said. “Now we get to export our natural resources like an island nation. Soil & Water via agrriculture. Energy instead of value added mfg products.”

Criticism from Democrats was equally harsh, suggesting that bipartisan, veto-proof congressional action to counter any deal on ZTE was not out of the realm of possibility. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer echoed his Republican colleague Senator Rubio on Twitter.

“@realDonaldTrump stick to your instincts when it comes to ZTE,” Schumer emplored. “Putting our nat’l security at risk for minor trade concessions is the definition of short-sighted. Frankly, this is exactly the type of deal you’d have called ‘weak’ or ‘the worst deal ever’ before you were @POTUS.”

The President has proven willing to reverse course in the face of a backlash from his base in the past, notably backing off compromises on immigration and gun control, following harsh criticism from his supporters in the media.

Some have speculated that the president’s calculus may change depending on the outcome of a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. China’s cooperation on the North Korea issue, including the enforcement of harsh sanctions, is seen as key to pushing the Kim regime to denuclearization.

Trump has recently called into question China’s commitment to the pressure campaign, writing in a tweet on Monday that “word is that recently the Border has become much more porous and more has been filtering in. I want this to happen, and North Korea to be VERY successful, but only after signing!”

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