Uncertainty persists despite Trump's comments that US and China close to trade deal

Straitstimes

US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday (Nov 12) that the United States and China are close to a trade deal, but made clear that the prospect of tariffs was still on the table, with a warning that the US would raise tariffs on China if no trade deal was reached.

President Donald Trump speaks at the Economic Club of New York on November 12, 2019 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump speaks at the Economic Club of New York on November 12, 2019 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

His speech at the Economic Club of New York was closely watched by Wall Street but offered no new details on any signing of a much-touted "Phase One" preliminary trade deal with China.

China, said President Trump, was dying to make a deal with their "supply chains cracking very badly" almost two years into the trade war.

"We're the ones deciding whether or not we want to make a deal. We're close. A significant Phase One deal with China could happen, could happen soon," he said, but added that he would accept only a deal that was good for American workers and companies.

"If we don't make a deal, we're going to substantially raise those tariffs," he said. "That's going to be true for every other country that will mistreat us too, because we've been mistreated by so many countries."

Top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow later told CNBC that he had no further details on the timing of the trade deal, saying: "I wouldn't put a timetable on it. Close means close.

"You're not going to have one side or the other agree to any tariff adjustments until the entire deal is put together," he said. "Since there's no formal agreement, we can't say whether there'll be any tariff adjustments at all."

Markets barely moved after Mr Trump's speech, which left trade watchers no clearer about how near the US and China were to a deal.

Former acting deputy US trade representative Wendy Cutler said that while Mr Trump's comments that the two sides were close to a deal was encouraging, she was not sure she agreed with his statement that China was "dying for a deal".

Said Ms Cutler: "He casts this negotiation as one where the US has all the leverage, while China's economy is on a downward spiral. I suspect that China believes it has the upper hand in the talks, given political developments in the US and the upcoming election."

She added: "These conflicting perceptions are undoubtedly complicating the ability of both sides to close the deal. Being close to a deal is no guarantee for a deal getting done."

In an early indication of reactions from Beijing, Mr Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times state-owned tabloid, wrote on Twitter that Mr Trump's speech contained nothing new.

"Quite a lot of criticisms and complaints about China from President Trump in his latest speech, but hardly anything new. Similar statements of senior US officials have bored people. It seems this US administration really believes a lie repeated a thousand times becomes truth," Mr Hu tweeted on Tuesday.

The easing of punitive tariffs has emerged as a point of contention, with China announcing last week that it had agreed with the US to cancel tariffs on each other's goods in phases, followed by Mr Trump's denial that he had so far agreed to roll back any tariffs.

Peterson Institute for International Economics senior fellow Gary Hufbauer said that one reason Mr Trump gave no details was that US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and China's Vice-Premier Liu He were still haggling over the terms of tariff reductions, including whether to postpone the upcoming Dec 15 tranche of tariffs on US$160 billion (S$218 billion) of Chinese imports.

Both leaders need an agreement, he said, adding: "Without an agreement, we will see a drop in the stock market and negative comments on the whole global economic situation looking more sour, and that will not look good for Trump."

Mr Trump's speech showcased key pillars of his presidential campaign, as he hailed the country's strong economic growth, job gains and robust manufacturing sector under his presidency.

He also took aim at the Federal Reserve's monetary policy decisions that have left US interest rates higher than many other economies, and said he would prefer negative rates.

"Remember we are actively competing with nations that openly cut interest rates so that many are now actually getting paid when they pay off their loan, known as negative interest. Who ever heard of such a thing?"

But farmers, many of whom helped Mr Trump swing states in the Midwest in the 2016 election, are not doing well, given the low prices of commodities such as corn, cotton and soybeans.

The US is also pushing China to commit to large purchases of agricultural goods at a defined time, which would lift the prices of these commodities, said Dr Hufbauer.

"Farmers are really hurting," he said. "An uplift in prices is what they're looking for, and they want it right now. They certainly want it before the 2020 election."

Straitstimes

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