The US-China trade war has developed into a surreal conflict between the world's two-largest economies. Photo: iStock
The phase one trade deal between China and the United States is looking rather thin on detail. Photo: iStock

As trade deals go, this one is anorexic. Typical agreements can resemble tomes, such as War and Peace, but the pared-down phase one accord between China and the United States stretches to just 86 pages.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer gave a glimpse of the document at a media briefing in Washington during the weekend.

“This is a very, very important step forward,” he said during a briefing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

“Some people say, ‘Well, you didn’t do some of the most difficult things,’ and of course that’s true. But you can look at it the other way just as easily and say the most difficult part is getting the first deal. That is the hardest part,” he added.

The devil, of course, will be in the detail once the fog lifts over the fine print after exhausting rounds of negotiations.

“There’s a translation period. There are some scrubs,” Lighthizer said, adding that after a few weeks of legal checks the deal would eventually be published and signed in the first week of the New Year.

So, what do we know from Washington’s end? Well, it appears Beijing has agreed to nearly double US exports to China by roughly US$200 billion during the next two years. This will include manufactured goods, and a reported $50 billion in agricultural and seafood imports, as well as energy and financial service products.

In exchange, the US has frozen planned tariffs worth $160 billion on Chinese imports, which were due to kick-in on December 15. Duties imposed in September on goods valued at up to $120 billion will be halved to 7.5%. The reductions will take effect 30 days after the agreement is finalized.

But tariffs imposed earlier on Chinese imports to the US worth $250 billion will remain at 25%. An agreement has also been reached on intellectual property rights and currency manipulation, but details are again sparse.

Naturally, Beijing has welcomed the breakthrough but has been more circumspect in discussing the document.

Read: US trade war wreaks havoc on China’s economy

Read: Gathering storm lurks behind US-China trade war

“If the trade war, [as the] US side [has] said before, only makes China lose to the US, then why has Washington agreed on the text of the phase one deal?” Ni Feng, of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the state-run Global Times newspaper. “This shows the China-US trade deal is reciprocal.

“Both sides [have] welcomed the agreement, but based on the ups and downs during the past 18 months, I’m afraid we still need to be prepared for more changes in the future,” he added.

To recap, US President Donald Trump launched the dispute more than a year-and-a-half ago. Initially, it was aimed at reducing the massive deficit with Beijing, which stood at $419 billion in 2018. During the first nine months of this year, the figure climbed to $500 billion.

But as the conflict dragged on, the White House extended the parameters to include China’s state-backed economic model, which has increased under President Xi Jinping.

Intellectual property rights, cybertheft and the slow pace of opening up and reforming other sectors of the world’s second-largest economy were also added into the mix.

As the atmosphere between Washington and Beijing turned toxic, a second front surfaced. A technological row broke out with the White House imposing sanctions on Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE, as well as other key players.

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Solving that conundrum will take more than 86 pages. But then, reaction to the Sino-American “mini” agreement has been “lukewarm.”

“Pardon me if I don’t pop [the] champagne, but aside from a cessation of continued escalation, there is not much worth cheering,” Scott Kennedy, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.

‘With only limited concessions, China has been able to preserve its mercantilist economic system and continue its discriminatory industrial policies at the expense of China’s trading partners and the global economy,” he added.

James M Zimmerman, the former chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, was just as scathing in his assessment. “The very fact that this is ‘phase one’ is a reflection of utter defeat,” he said. “Nothing gained but lukewarm purchases after 18 months of a costly trade war.”

Phase two will be the next item on the agenda. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pointed out at the weekend this will be tackled in stages.

Read: China and US in trillion-dollar tech war

Read: Trade war chips away at China’s wheel of fortune

Indeed, this will go to the heart of the standoff, including China’s state-controlled economy and the policy of excessive subsidized industries.

For team Trump, this was a large bone of contention. For Xi and senior Communist Party officials within his administration, a red line that could not be crossed

“There are important issues left in ‘phase two’. And perhaps there will be a ‘phase two A’, ‘phase two B’ and ‘phase two C’. We will see,” Mnuchin said.

How this will play out will be the multi-billion-dollar question and will set the tone on the future relationship between the world’s two biggest economies.

Academics Adam Ni and Yun Jiang, of China Neican, which produces policy-focused analyses, are far from optimistic about grinding out a phase two accord.

“It remains to be seen what ‘phase two’ would entail. So far, the details that would help Trump [the purchase of agricultural goods] have been released while the more important aspects of the deal from the standpoint of the global economy [structural changes] have been withheld,” they wrote in a briefing.

“Essentially, many US grievances are rooted in the role played by the [Communist] Party-state in the Chinese economy, which is vital for the Party’s survival. The current trade pressures are not going to force a fundamental transformation of China’s political economy. And because of this, even if China and the US come to an agreement on trade, long-term economic and strategic competition is here to stay,” they added.

Still, for Beijing, this has been an excellent 72 hours. On Monday, the National Bureau of Statistics reported that industrial production jumped by 6.2% in November compared to the same period last year, hitting levels not seen for six months.

Retail sales also surged by 8% compared to October’s number of 7.2%. But the data was probably buoyed by record spending during Alibaba’s annual “Singles’ Day” buying spree.

“Key economic indicators performed better than expected [in the] face of mounting risks and challenges both at home and abroad,” Fu Linghui, a spokesman at the National Bureau of Statistics, said.

Yet overall, this has been a depressing year for China’s economy. Just like the phase-one agreement, it has had a distinctive anorexic look.

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