posted July 25, 2019
China-US Trade War Deja Vu: G20 Buenos Aires to Osaka

This past June 29, 2019 Trump and China president, Xi, met again at the G20 in Japan in the midst of a potential further escalating trade war. Has anything changed as a result of their meeting? Or is it just deja vu of their prior G20 meeting in Buenos Aires on December 2, 2018?

In the months leading up to the December Buenos Aires meeting between Trump and Xi, US neocon trade negotiators (Lighthizer, Navarro) had scuttled in May 2018 what was then a pending trade deal negotiated by US Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, and his Beijing counterparts. Thereafter, China had refused throughout the summer and fall 2018 to meet with Trump, despite Trump’s repeated attempts to lure Xi back to the bargaining table with threats and ‘happy talk’ praising Xi before the US November midterm Congressional elections. Xi did not take the bait. Trump and Xi finally met again at the G20 in Buenos Aires December 2, 2018. The outcome was more typical Trump public ‘happy talk’ laced with platitudes about how he and Xi had such a great relationship; how the two countries trade teams would now work toward an agreement; and how Trump in the interim would not impose a further hike in existing tariffs on China $200 billion imports, scheduled for January 2019. Stock markets began to recover, after their 30% swoon of late 2018, in expectation of a trade deal—assisted at the time as well by the US central bank, the Fed, capitulating in late December 2018 to Trump demands to stop raising US interest rates.

Following the Buenos Aires G20, the two countries’ trade teams resumed negotiations in February 2019 and it seemed were about to reach an agreement once again. But, once again, as in May 2018, the negotiations broke down a second time this past May 2019—once again scuttled by the US neocons and anti-China hardliners who had retained control of the trade negotiations and access to Trump’s ear.

In the aftermath of the Japan G20 meeting of June 29, once more the same ‘spin is in’ that followed the Buenos Aires meeting: i.e. Trump declares publicly he has such a great relationship with Xi; Trump announces there’s a great deal now pending between the two countries; and the US and China trade teams will soon begin again to thrash out the details on the remaining 10% or so of US-China trade differences. In the interim, Trump announced he will withhold imposing his threatened increase in tariffs (this time on an additional $325 billion of China imports to the US).

In other words, coming out of the latest G20 it’s almost an exact déjà vu all over again on June 29, 2019, as it was at last December 2018’s G20 meeting between Trump and Xi in Buenos Aires.

The key question is—in the wake of the second collapse of a pending US-China trade deal this past May 2019—will we now also see a repeat again of the US maneuvers that occurred following the break up of the first deal of May 2018? Or has Xi and the Chinese finally ‘got Trump’s number’, as they say, and will refuse to come back to the negotiating table until after the 2020 election, unless Trump provides firm assurances of a compromise. Moreover, that compromise, should it occur, will have to include the US withdrawing its latest demands for a China capitulation on the technology issue, which has always been the crux of the US-China trade dispute.

The First Trade Deal Blow Up: May 2018

In March 2018 the US launched its first salvo against China with US trade representative, Lighthizer’s, report that China was stealing US technology and that China’s 2025 program was a plan for it to surpass US next generation technology development (G5, AI, cybersecurity)during the next decade. Trump administration public statements, in contrast, focused on the China trade deficit and on China policies preventing US corporations’ majority ownership of its operations in China. Trump immediately imposed tariffs on an initial list of China imports to the US; China responded with a smaller list.

China quickly engaged with the US on these various issues, sending a team to finalize terms on a trade deal to the US in May. Trade negotiation teams traveled back and forth between Beijing and Washington. It looked like a deal was imminent.
As a deal got closer, in May 2018, US Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, assumed control of the negotiations with the Chinese. Neocon trade advisor, Peter Navarro, a member of the US trade team, was thrown off the US team. Mnuchin had apparently cut a deal with China: the latter would buy trillions of more US farm and manufacturing goods over the next five years, US bankers and multinational corporations would be given 51% or more access to ownership of their operations in China, and China would pass legislation placing limits on US corporate tech transfer in China.

But then the neocons struck back. With friends in the Pentagon and Congress they went after China corporations. First it was ZTE. Then Huawei. Navarro was put back on the US trade team. Lighthizer was put in charge again, and Mnuchin formally a co-chair of the US trade team but in reality demoted to a role of watching over Lighthizer and the neocons now once again running the show. The technology issue was back in as the priority issue. That’s next generation technology—i.e. 5G, Artificial Intelligence, and cybersecurity. The key technologies not only for the industries and trade of the coming decade, but also the key technologies for military hegemony for another decade. The neocons, the Pentagon, the US Military Industrial Complex, and their friends chairing the powerful military committees in the Senate and House demand that China not simply restrict tech transfer from US corporations doing business in China. No, the demand was the limiting of China nextgen tech development. China would not be allowed to leapfrog the US militarily in the 2020s.

The trade team neocons—Lighthizer, Navarro, and now Bolton in the background—had gained Trump’s ear and whoever gets to Trump last usually gets him to do what they want. Moderates, including the generals, were leaving the Trump administration like rats departing the ship at dockside. Besides, during the summer 2018 Trump had turned his attention to the NAFTA 2.0 negotiations and the upcoming November 2018 US midterm elections. Further progress on US-China trade could wait. The US had already gained concessions from China on two major themes: China purchases of US farm goods and 51% ownership. That would still be on the table when negotiations resumed. Let China think about the tech issue further in the interim, until after the November US elections. Trump tried over the summer and fall of 2018 to entice Xi to return to the table, but Xi did not take the bait. To do so would only give Trump another event to boast to his political base during the November 2018 elections. Xi would wait. And he’ll now wait again.

Delaying negotiations after the May 2018 blow up of negotiations would, of course, mean US farmers would continue to feel the pinch of China reduction of purchases of soybeans and other commodities. But Trump softened that blow with tens of billions of dollars of US subsidies to US farmers in 2018, to be followed by tens of billions more in early 2019.

G20 Buenos Aires Meeting and After

Immediately after the November 2018 elections, Trump renewed efforts to meet with Xi. They did so at the end of 2018 at the G20 in Buenos Aires. Lots of fanfare and typical Trump hyberbole followed: President Xi was such a good buddy. A great deal was in the works and would soon be announced. In the interim, Trump suspended raising tariffs to 25% on existing $200 billion of China imports as negotiations resumed February 2019. Lots of happy talk about all the progress being made at the G20, as the US stock markets recovered nicely in the first quarter of 2019.

But negotiations broke down once again, a second time, in May 2019 (as they had a year previous in May 2018). The official US line fed to the media was that the Chinese had reneged at the last minute, and added new demands and proposals—when in fact it was the US that introduced last minute demands it knew the Chinese could not accept, in the week before the China delegation was to come to Washington to finalize the deal.

This time the Lighthizer-Navarro-Bolton team not only demanded stronger limits on tech transfer from US corporations in China. Now the demand was China would have to sever all its companies’ relations with US tech companies in the US —and not just Huawei. A new US offensive was launched to intimidate US researchers doing joint tech research work with Chinese counterparts in US universities to end their joint cooperation; US tech companies in China were quietly told to start planning to move their supply chains out of China in the medium to long run; and the Chinese were told the US would not stop its proceedings against Huawei; moreover, it would escalate its pressure on US allies to sever 5G investment plans with Huawei as well. And that was not all. As the China delegation made final plans to come to Washington, the US team signaled publicly that the US would retain tariffs even if there were a deal. The excuse was the US needed to retain tariffs as a threat if China didn’t fully implement its concessions to the US. And then there was the especially insulting demand by the US: China would have to share even its independent technology development in 5G, cyber, and AI with the US as part of a deal.

The China delegation came over anyway, but obviously no deal was concluded. Perhaps it was to verify whether Trump really agreed with these onerous terms thrown up at the last minute by the Lighthizer-Bolton neocons. They left empty-handed. Apparently it was true.

How Trump and the US Now Negotiates

The Trump approach was predictable. This is how he did business before becoming President. And it is how he now runs the US government: Make public declarations about what a great person his negotiating partner is. Make public statements how a trade deal is imminent. Then at the last minute throw up unacceptable demands, threats, and intimidating statements. Allow negotiations to break off. When the other side does so, blame them for failing to make a deal. Then wait and see if the other side makes concessions and signals it wants to return to the bargaining table. When they do, privately or publicly, return to negotiations with more demands for concessions. If necessary, play this same game over again.

China and Xi were burned once by these maneuvers back in May 2018. Now they met again at the recent G20 in Japan and the negotiations will once again resume. Trump adviser Larry Kudlow has noted ‘phone calls’ are occurring back and forth between the US and China negotiating teams. But there’s no indication of any meetings in the works between Trump and Xi. Nor will there likely be soon. It is not likely the Chinese will be burned again. In fact, they have publicly declared no deal unless Trump at minimum withdraws his May 2019 trade team threat to retain tariffs whether a deal is reached or not. That’s likely a ‘non-starter’ until Trump takes it off the table. Positions may be hardening, not softening.

In the interim, as during the days following Buenos Aires, following the most recent Osaka G20, Trump is again repeating platitudes and praise for Xi. He’s publicly announced that China has made great concessions to buy record levels of US farm goods. But China had conceded that and put it on the bargaining table almost a year ago! It had promised to buy $1 trillion more in US goods over the next five years. So Trump’s just repeating what has already been agreed to some time ago. Nevertheless, for Trump ‘spin is in’ once again post-Osaka.

That should hold US business and farm criticisms at bay for several more months—along with the $20 billion more in farm subsidies announced by Trump—likely paid for by cuts to US food stamps, housing subsidies, education funding, etc. Should another, third round of farm subsidies follow in 2020 if no trade deal is concluded, total direct Trump farm subsidies will exceed $50 billion.
What’s Next: More Déjà vu? Or a Deal?

It should be clear that as of July 2019 there’s no imminent China-US trade deal. Trump is just buying time. No additional tariffs—i.e. $325 billion on remaining China imports—will likely be imposed in the interim. A hiatus has occurred at least for the remainder of 2019. US business pressure and growing criticism of Trump’s trade policy, and growing farm sector discontent, will prevent Trump from raising more tariffs—at least for now.

But US pressure to drive China tech companies out of the US economy and, if possible, from the economies of US allies in Europe and elsewhere, will no doubt continue. So too will continue US pressure to isolate China company and University researchers in the US and force them to leave. And longer term, the US will continue to press US corporations to relocate their supply chains from China to elsewhere in Asia (Vietnam? South Korea?) or even Mexico.

When will a China-US trade deal then be concluded? Not likely this year. Trump probably now wants to wait until closer to the 2020 election. And the neocons still have his ear and are still driving US trade policy (indeed, US foreign policy on a number of fronts as well). And they don’t want a deal…ever! Unless of course China agrees to capitulate on the central issue of nextgeneration technology development.

For the remainder of 2019, US policy will be to squeeze China tech corporations, to make operations so uncomfortable for them they will have to leave the US, as well as US allied economies. Trump will continue to collect tariffs from China imports, which he sees as a plus, while increasing his public threats that China not to allow its currency, the Yuan-Reminbi, to devalue which would negate the hikes in US tariffs. Meanwhile, domestically Trump policy ‘spin’ will try to publicly make it appear (to Trump’s farm base and US business in general) that the US and China are working in good faith toward an agreement.

Longer term, into 2020, if the US neocons retain control of negotiations and Trump’s ear, they will continue to insist the US retain tariffs, insist on China capitulating on the tech issue, and continue to go after China tech companies in the US and worldwide. That means there will be no agreement even in 2020.

From Tariff-Trade War to Economic War?

It’s probably becoming increasingly clear to the Chinese that the US has not launched a ‘tariff war’, as Trump likes to call it. In fact it’s a stretch to even call it a ‘trade war’. US policy is driving longer term toward a bonafide economic war between the US and China.
In the nearer term, the current differences may well transform the ‘tariff’ war into a ‘currency war’ that will spread contagion and reverberate globally across other economies—at a time at which the global capitalist economy is slowing fast and approaching as well a new financial instability.

And China doesn’t have to ‘manipulate’ its currency. All it has to do is allow the Yuan-Renminbi to devalue naturally in response to US policy and the slowing global economy. That devaluation would more than offset most Trump tariff hikes. So far, China has intervened in global money exchange markets to prevent this—contrary to the Trump/Neocon charge it is manipulating its currency. All it needs to do is allow it to occur according to prevailing economic and market forces and just not intervene in global money markets further to prop up the Yuan.

Then there’s China’s $1.3 trillion of US assets, mostly Treasuries, held by its central bank. It could slow its purchase of new US government debt, which it appears it recently may now be doing. Should the trade-economic war intensify, it could stop or even sell off its dollar hoard. That would drive up long term interest rates in the US and the value of the US dollar still more, further slowing global growth and negatively impacting emerging market economies and US multinational profits repatriation from those economies.
Rising US rates and the dollar could precipitate another stock and junk bond sell-off, similar to that which occurred in late 2018. And Trump doesn’t like stock market declines.

There are numerous other ‘actions’ the Chinese could take in response to US neocons intensifying or prolonging the US-China tariff-trade war, further driving the US-China differences into a broader economic war. Even if US neocons don’t understand this, or don’t care, which is more likely, widespread business and banking interests do and could intervene more forcefully should the drift toward economic war continue.

And there’s a wild card in the trade war deck that may yet check the neocons influence perhaps. That’s the current softening of the US and China economies. That could force both sides to an agreement. Should the US economy slip into a recession by 2020, or even late 2019, as this writer has predicted—Trump may grab the major concessions already on the negotiating table, i.e. China purchases of $1 trillion more US goods and China’s concession to allow US majority ownership rights in China. Trump could then announce (and exaggerate) having a big victory in trade negotiations over China—all just before the 2020 US elections.

China’s economy is slowing, but so too is the US. The US 1st Quarter GDP numbers were propped up by temporary factors associated with inventory over-investment and net exports, both of which are fading rapidly this quarter. Moreover, consumption is barely growing and business investment is turning negative. The US central bank, the Federal Reserve, is projected to start lowering US interest rates this month, giving further impetus to the projected massive $1.5 trillion in stock buybacks and dividend payouts scheduled by Fortune 500 corporations this year. That may succeed in putting a temporary floor under stock markets. But the real economy is being driven to slowdown, or worse, by year end. And the bond markets and yield curves are clearly signaling that development.

A more rapidly slowing US economy, now clearly beginning, may change the trade negotiations dynamic. And if the US slips into recession the pressure to cut a deal will grow. Trump may yet be convinced to take the China concessions on the table and postpone US demands for a China capitulation on nextgen technologies, to be raised anew after the 2020 elections or even before to allow Trump to appear aggressively ‘America First’ targeting China to his political base in the weeks just before the 2020 election.

Because for Trump a ‘deal is never a deal’, it’s never concluded, but reopened whenever he wants it to be.

Breaking an agreement is standard practice for Trump. Just ask the Mexicans, where Trump threatened more tariffs even after concluding a new NAFTA 2.0 deal. Or the Iranians, who thought they had an agreement with the US. Or the Europeans who thought they had a Climate deal. For Trump, negotiations are a long term process, punctuated by happy talk events, followed by more threats, insults, new sanctions, and intimidations, and the reopening of deals once thought concluded by opponents.

In other words, even if a China-US trade deal is done next year the trade war will not be over. It will have just begun, as it evolves toward a broader ‘economic’ war after the 2020 elections, or even before.

The key to a China trade deal sooner rather than later is whether Trump and US big economic elites can convince the neocons and military industrial complex to agree to a short term deal with China that provides only token nextgen technology concessions—with the assurance that the US will reopen and resume the trade-economic offensive after the 2020 elections once again.

For US economic and political elites are in general agreement with the neocons behind the Trump daily trade war circus. They will not allow China to challenge the US next decade by leveraging the nextgen technologies that are the key to both economic and military hegemony by 2030. It’s just a question of timing. Should they decide for domestic political reasons to take two bites of the bargaining apple from the Chinese now, and come back later for the big bite: i.e. the fight over nextgen technology. Or will they continue to insist on three bites now, all at once.

This writer’s guess and prediction is that the slowing US and global economy will result in the former. The US will grab the China concessions now on the negotiating table, and demand more after the 2020 elections. For the current tariff-trade war is just the opening salvo in an epic struggle between the US and China. The technology war dimension between the two has already begun, albeit still in early stages. What appears on the surface as a trade war is to a significant extent the cover for a more fundamental technology war beneath the surface, and a broader economic war over technology that will fundamentally characterize US-China relations in the 2020s.
Just as European and American imperialists jockeyed and maneuvered in the years leading up to 1914, with a focus on markets and natural resource control, in the 21st century the jockeying and maneuvering has begun—albeit with a different focus on nextgen technologies and control over global money flows, currencies, and other levers of financial power.

The 2020s decade will prove a highly dangerous period. The global capitalist economy is slowing, as it does periodically. A new restructuring of the US and global capitalist economy is on the agenda next decade, as it was in the late 1970s, in the mid-1940s, and on the eve of 1914.

Trump trade and other policies should be understood as a broad reordering of US economic and political policies in order to ensure the continuation of US global economic and political-military hegemony for the coming decade. Nextgen technology development is at the core of that restructuring and restoration of US hegemony. Trump is just the appearance and the human agent and vehicle of the deeper transformations in progress.

Dr. Jack Rasmus is author of the forthcoming book, ‘The Scourge of Neoliberalism: US Policy from Reagan to Trump, Clarity Press, September 2019; and the recently published ‘Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of the Fed’, Lexington books, March 2019. He blogs at jackrasmus.com and his website is www.kyklosproductions.com . Dr. Rasmus tweets at @drjackrasmus and hosts the Alternative Visions radio show on the Progressive Radio Network.

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