Though the handshake will help stabilize the relationship between the world’s two largest economies and provide relief to farmers and manufacturers bearing the brunt of Trump’s tariffs, critics warn it falls woefully short in a crucial way: The 86-page text does not cover long-standing U.S. concerns about China’s industrial policy, including how to rein in the billions of dollars in government subsidies Beijing bestows upon its state-owned enterprises.
“That’s a giant hole in the phase one deal, and there’s no way to get around it,” said Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Trump administration officials have been clear since details of the agreement began emerging last month that some tricky issues are left out. “Is it going to solve all the problems? No,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said during an interview on CBS in December.
They maintain that notching some progress is better than nothing, and the plan is to begin a second phase of negotiations that covers outstanding concerns. But beyond Trump saying he plans to travel to Beijing “in the not too distant future” to launch those discussions, there is no firm date for talks, nor is there a clear-cut path forward.
Trump himself has begun to lower expectations, saying he’s in no rush, and his top allies are warning the next phase might not conclude until after November’s presidential election. The result is increasing frustration among some American businesses and technology companies who feel Trump is trading away hard-earned leverage in exchange for an agreement that does little to resolve the systemic issues that led the White House to begin imposing tariffs against China two years ago.
“We’re no closer today to resolving any of those fundamental frictions than we were before the trade war started,” Bown said.
Still, Trump himself was quick to tout the benefits of an agreement he hailed as a “really incredible breakthrough” at Wednesday’s signing ceremony, which dozens of Republican lawmakers and business and industry representatives attended.
“Today we take a momentous step — one that has never been taken before with China — toward a future of fair and reciprocal trade,” Trump said in the White House East Room.
Yet, billions in tariffs will remain in place, hurting the economy. The added duties imposed over the past two years — which were meant to bolster domestic manufacturing and punish China — were “approximately 100 percent” borne by American consumers and importers, a paper by three economists recently found.
Administration officials say the path forward will depend in part on how closely China adheres to the commitments it has agreed to in phase one, including whether it meets the required purchasing figures. The administration has said Beijing agreed to boost overall purchases by $200 billion above 2017 levels; POLITICO reported this week that will break down to around $75 billion in manufactured goods, $50 billion in energy, $40 billion in agriculture and $35 billion to $40 billion in services.
“This is the first agreement like this of its kind, and we have to make sure that it works, right?” Lighthizer told reporters at the White House on Wednesday. “That’s the first thing.”
In exchange for purchases, Trump has already held off on further tariff increases that he had threatened to impose late last year, while duties currently in place on roughly $370 billion worth of Chinese imports will remain in place. Despite broad speculation that those could be reduced or removed if Beijing follows through on its commitments, Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin emphasized this week that “there is no agreement for future reduction in tariffs.”
Any additional tariff cuts will depend on China making further concessions than what has already been agreed to, Lighthizer said. Trump also made clear that duties will remain in place unless and until the two sides agree on a second phase of the agreement, which he said he anticipates being the last.
“In other words, we’re negotiating with the tariffs,” Trump said. “I’m leaving them on, because otherwise we have no cards to negotiate with.”
While the agreement may help Trump score political points to carry into his reelection campaign as evidence of his dealmaking prowess, others argue the main benefit of the first phase of the agreement is simply to unwind the damage the president himself has inflicted.
“The administration has pulled back from escalating the trade war, and I guess that’s a positive thing. But they started this all in the first place,” said Daniel Griswold, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.
“I still don’t think we’re any better off than we were before the Trump administration pursued a trade action against China,” he added.
The question now becomes whether Beijing will ultimately commit to return the negotiating table to tackle remaining issues that they have long resisted addressing — or whether Chinese officials simply plan to wait out a U.S. president who may no longer be in office a year from now.
“It will be very difficult to get China back to the negotiating table on the real big issues,” said Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at The Economist Intelligence Unit. “At the moment, China is playing a waiting game.”
Announcement of a deal was met with mixed reaction on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers from both parties welcomed the relief in trade tensions but pushed the administration to keep pushing for more.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), an outspoken China hardliner, said Trump “deserves credit” for tackling issues with Beijing but warned that “one trade deal alone will not solve the critical structural imbalances” between the two countries.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, slammed the Trump administration for settling on a deal that doesn’t actually combat China’s unfair trading practices, calling it a “historic blunder.”
The New York Democrat argued that Trump officials knew it wasn’t a good agreement or else they would have been bragging about it.
“They can’t spin it,” Schumer said from the Senate floor. “It’s a bad deal.”
Sabrina Rodriguez and Doug Palmer contributed to this report.