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China promises swift action on trade, but mystery still surrounds Trump-Xi agreement

Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIJING -- The few words offered by China's Ministry of Commerce on Wednesday about a deal between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to temporarily suspend tariff hikes expressed confidence but provided little clarity on just what the two leaders agreed to at a weekend meeting.

"It was a very successful meeting, and we are very confident in the implementation," a Ministry of Commerce spokesman said in comments posted on the agency's website. But the comments offered few hints on what was agreed upon or what would be implemented.

Markets had fallen sharply Tuesday over questions about the two sides' differing versions of the agreement and after Trump went on Twitter to label himself "a Tariff Man." Markets were closed Wednesday in the U.S. to honor the death of President George H.W. Bush.

In an early-morning series of tweets Wednesday, Trump insisted his Saturday meeting with Xi was a success: "Very strong signals being sent by China once they returned home from their long trip, including stops, from Argentina. Not to sound naive or anything, but I believe President Xi meant every word of what he said at our long and hopefully historic meeting. ALL subjects discussed!"

As the leaders met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, the sides agreed to suspend planned tariff hikes for 90 days to allow negotiation of a substantive trade agreement.

The White House announced that China agreed to reduce and remove 40 percent tariffs on American autos and to immediately increase imports of agricultural and other products.

All eyes looked to Beijing to confirm the White House account, but the Chinese government has so far been silent on the details. One possible reason for the lack of detail is that Xi has been overseas, completing a state visit in Portugal.

The Ministry of Commerce spokesman said Wednesday that there had been consensus between Trump and Xi on certain issues and that China would move ahead, "the sooner the better," but did not elaborate.

"Both teams will follow a very clear timetable and road map, to actively promote the consultation within 90 days."

A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry also expressed hopes of a deal to end the trade war.

"We hope the two working teams from both sides can, based on the consensus reached between the two countries' leaders, strengthen consultations and reach a mutually beneficial agreement soon," spokesman Geng Shuang said.

Attention is now focused on a regular news briefing of the Ministry of Commerce on Thursday, in the hope of more information on what actions China may take.

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If the trade cease-fire doesn't produce an agreement, the tariff hikes would go ahead and the chances of the world's two largest economies reaching consensus could be dashed for months.

Some reports emerged Wednesday suggesting that China may be ready to move ahead with some concessions. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that Chinese officials were preparing to resume imports of American soybeans and liquefied petroleum gas, citing unnamed officials.

Reuters reported Chinese state-owned oil trading firm Unipec would resume imports of U.S. oil by March, citing three unnamed sources. It quoted a Chinese official as saying that officials were waiting for leaders' return from overseas before publicizing details of the agreement.

Such measures might be seen as good-faith gestures as negotiations unfold, but would not meet Washington's demands for broad changes to China's industrial policy, in particular its state support for key high-tech industrial firms, forced transfers of technology by American companies doing business in China, and tolerance or tacit encouragement of intellectual property theft.

The bruising trade war has seen tit-for-tat tariffs ramped up, first by the Trump administration and then by China. In a year of canceled meetings, chilly dialogue and recriminations, hopes for a breakthrough were pinned on the face-to-face meeting between Xi and Trump. But the big challenge will come in the months ahead, depending on whether China offers enough concessions to reach a deal.

The U.S. supported China when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, expecting that it would shift rapidly to an open, more transparent economy, changes Washington complains never eventuated.

China's Made in China 2025 plan -- Xi's ambitious policy to see China emerge as a global leader in key high-tech industries -- is perceived in Washington as a threat to the United States' global power, as is his Belt and Road infrastructure initiative that has extended China's reach across the world as it offers loans and underwrites building projects in dozens of nations.

A series of arrests of people accused of spying for China against the U.S. in recent months has not helped relations.

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