As a diplomatic odyssey, the trade war between China and the United States is hardly Homeric in length.

Fifteen months and counting, the dispute between the world’s two largest economies pales in comparison to the Brexit saga, which has been rumbling on for more than three years.

British prime ministers have come and gone, blown away by the fallout which engulfed the United Kingdom after the referendum vote in 2016 to leave the European Union.

So far, the trade conflict has lacked that political savagery.

US President Donald Trump is still in the White House. His opposite number Xi Jinping still officially resides at Zhongnanhai, the old imperial garden complex adjacent to Beijing’s Forbidden City and home to the Communist Party elite.

Phase one of a broader agreement is on the table with both sides working on the minute details. On Friday, China’s Vice-Premier Liu He is scheduled to hold a progress report with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

An accord appears to be within touching distance. But, in fact, this could be the lull before the storm and Trade War II.

“This is a ceasefire, not a deal,” John Edwards, an academic at the Lowy Institute, an independent Australian think tank based in Sydney, said.

To recap, Beijing has agreed to boost US agricultural imports, open up further its financial services industry and roll out an intellectual property rights law with teeth. In response, Washington delayed a planned hike in tariffs on Chinese goods and products worth $250 billion, which were due to kick in on October 15.

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“Putting all this together suggests that after a year and a half of drama and a boatload of collateral damage, we may be pretty much back where we started,” William Alan Reinsch, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.

“Chinese agriculture purchases will resume at either normal or higher levels, new US tariffs will be postponed (but not permanently tossed aside), old Chinese promises will be recycled, while some tariffs on both sides will remain in effect. And all the problems that we began with remain,” he wrote on the Washington-based think tank’s website.

As for the “promises,” Beijing has put in place legislation to expand foreign participation in the financial industry, which is mainly composed of state-owned banks, and is worth an estimated $40 trillion. UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Nomura are at the front of the queue.

Yet this “opening up” process has been in the works for nearly two years of staged access. So, why are both sets of negotiators still haggling over the fine print of the “mini deal.”

“This is tough to watch. This mini deal doesn’t include any tough issues, and yet it is still going to take the two sides another month to finalize it,” Trivium China, a policy monitoring and intelligence research firm, reported last week. “If a mini deal is this difficult, a comprehensive deal would seem all but impossible.”

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To retrace the road to economic perdition, the row began over America’s soaring trade deficit with China. In 2018, it was a massive $419.52 billion.

Since the opening salvos, other issues have overshadowed dollars and cents.

Intellectual property theft, forced transfer of technology, cyber spying and even Beijing’s state-run model have come under the microscope. Also, there is the issue of enforcing any subsequent accord.

For team Trump, this is a red line. For Xi and senior Party officials, a bone of contention.

Judging by China’s past record, it seems a reasonable request.

Future talks

“My conjecture about the blueprint for future negotiations as we move forward is further buttressed by the fact that this time Beijing did not even insist on restoring all tariffs to the status they had before July last year, when the trade war started, which was precisely one of the three preconditions that Lu He emphasized when he was in Washington in May,” John Gong, an academic at the Charhar Institute think tank and a professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, said.

“Such a phased approach provides political cover for the enforcement mechanism of the agreement. [The] original language, according to various reports, was embarrassing and humiliating to China and encroached on sovereignty,” he wrote in a commentary for China-US Focus, an open-platform on bilateral relations.

But the “sovereignty” conundrum is unlikely to fade away when the hard yards need to be made in future talks.

“Facts have shown that as long as both sides carry out consultations in the spirit of mutual respect, there are absolutely acceptable solutions … otherwise, the consultations will suffer a setback,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Paris on Monday.

In the end, this could be the only agreement that will be signed off without a further escalation in the dispute, plunging both countries into an economic Cold War and vast sways of the globe into recession.

As Edwards wrote in a commentary for the Lowy Institute:

“The quarrel is causing significant damage to the US and China, and to the entire global economy.

“Since China will not agree to adopt a US view on what structural changes are appropriate for its economy, a phase-one deal may well be the only deal possible. If that realization has dawned in Washington, the likelihood of ending the current quarrel has much increased.”

A truce by any other name? If that happens, the trade war could yet reach the Homeric proportions of Odysseus’ epic voyage.

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