When the United States and China signed the “phase one” trade agreement back in January, it looked as if the Trump administration had finally notched a concrete foreign policy achievement into its belt.
President Trump, a man who has condemned Chinese trade practices for decades and based much of his 2016 campaign on fixing the trade deficit with the Asian superpower, spent the day congratulating himself for a job well done. “Today, we take a momentous step, one that has never been taken before with China toward a future of fair and reciprocal trade with China,” he said at a White House ceremony. “Together, we are righting the wrongs of the past.”
Unfortunately, the last seven months have nakedly exposed those words as detachments from reality. The coronavirus has largely wiped out whatever bonhomie the White House had toward its counterparts in Beijing. If the U.S.-China relationship was defined by a nagging competitive streak in the pre-coronavirus era, it’s now wallowing in despair.
Even the trade deal Trump spent years of political capital on is in danger of dying an early death. According to unnamed sources who spoke to the Daily Beast, China hawks in the administration, led by none other than White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, are recommending that Trump walk away from the agreement entirely. The president reportedly feels some sympathy for the idea. What better way to show the American people you are tough on China, the logic goes, than to spit in Beijing’s face and blow up a deal the Chinese aren’t exactly complying with anyway?
Those who want to kill the U.S.-China trade deal have numbers on their side. The Peterson Institute for International Economics assesses that Chinese purchases of American goods are only at 47% of their year-end targets. Beijing committed to buying $25 billion of U.S. energy products this year, but it’s only 22% of the way there. No U.S. official worth his or her salt would support staying in an agreement that is not being adhered to by the other party.
This, however, is no ordinary time. As questionable as the phase one deal is on the merits, it at least represents a sorely needed channel of communication between Washington and Beijing. I say “sorely needed” for an obvious reason: At the moment, there isn’t a lot of discussion happening at the senior policymaking level. It took Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi nearly a year before they met with each other in Hawaii last June. (That meeting resulted in bupkis.)
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping aren’t on speaking terms, with the president accusing Beijing of deliberately unleashing a pandemic upon the world and hinting that talks about phase two may not even happen. When U.S. and Chinese officials do communicate with one another, it’s through high-profile speeches that amount to nothing more than public relations gambits. It’s hard to arrest the deterioration when both sides are painting each other as deviants, occupiers, or troublemakers. The U.S. and China have taken on the role of two mortal enemies, each trying to lay traps for the other.
Amid this dumpster fire of a relationship lies the dialogue channel between U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, two men who have gotten to know one another through months upon months of arduous negotiations. Lighthizer and Lui are scheduled to meet on Aug. 15 to assess progress on the trade pact’s implementation. It will likely be a thorny session given the circumstances.
Yet sometimes in diplomacy, meetings can have their own kind of momentum. With the Chinese Foreign Ministry throwing subtle hints that Beijing would like to return a little stability into the relationship, it would be foreign policy malpractice if Washington did not at least use whatever channels of communication at its disposal to test the prospect.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many of those communication channels around nowadays. The Lighthizer-Lui link is perhaps the last one to function. Before Trump makes a decision about quitting a trade deal he spent years negotiating, he should ask himself whether U.S.-China relations can afford another diplomatic rupture.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.