BEIJING — China issued an upbeat but vague promise Wednesday to carry out a tariff cease-fire with Washington but gave no details that might dispel confusion about what Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump agreed to in Argentina.
China has yet to confirm Trump’s claim that Beijing committed to cut auto tariffs and buy more American farm exports. That, coupled with conflicting statements by Trump and U.S. officials, helped trigger a tumble in U.S. stock prices Tuesday amid doubt about the chances for a lasting settlement of a battle over technology that threatens to chill global economic growth.
“China will start from implementing specific issues on which consensus has been reached, and the sooner, the better,” the Commerce Ministry said on its website.
The two sides have a “clear timetable and road map” for talks, the ministry said, but gave no details. The ministry didn’t respond to questions by phone and fax.
The Chinese silence prompted questions about what Trump said was a promise by Beijing to buy more American exports and negotiate over U.S. complaints that it steals American technology.
Stock markets rose Monday after U.S. officials touted the agreement as a historic breakthrough. But they plunged Tuesday after Trump called himself “Tariff Man” on Twitter and renewed threats of penalty duties.
Chinese Leaders Are Right to Move Carefully
Be patient, said Ma Hong, a trade expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He said Chinese leaders are right to move carefully as they deal with contentious details.
The delay in talking “isn’t a sign of rejection, but of cautiousness,” said Ma.
“The United States has put forward many demands, not all of them reasonable,” he said. Negotiations will proceed “step by step, not based on the rhythm of the United States.”
Trump is pressing Beijing to roll back plans for state-led development of Chinese technology champions that Washington says violate its market-opening commitments.
Chinese leaders have offered to change some details of plans such as “Made in China 2025.” They have rejected pressure to scrap strategies they see as a path to prosperity and global influence, but foreign analysts say they might be starting to understand the depth of foreign opposition to their plans.
Beijing has tried without success to recruit Europe, South Korea and other countries as allies against Trump. They criticize Washington’s tactics but share its complaints.
This week’s confusion highlights the clash between the secrecy and measured pace of the ruling Communist Party and Trump, who fires off dozens of Twitter comments a day and cultivates an image as a fast-paced, unpredictable deal-maker.
Beijing Is Less Informative Than Washington
Chinese leaders routinely use delays of months or years to pressure negotiating partners.
Even on routine matters, with no voters to placate and total control of Chinese media, they can frustrate other governments by leaving them waiting weeks or months for a response.
Beijing is less informative than Washington, which “might sometimes be too transparent,” with officials issuing conflicting statements, said Louis Kuijs of Oxford Economics.
Despite the Chinese silence, the “atmosphere is more constructive” and Beijing might be more willing to negotiate, Kuijs said. He noted all the major American players attended the Argentina meeting, giving a sign of “buy in” on a U.S. position. China has responded to Washington’s list of demands, though it is unclear what Beijing said.
The Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post, citing unidentified sources, said Beijing was preparing to send a 30-member negotiating team to Washington.
“I think there is a higher likelihood that we get meaningful discussions now than in much of the last six months,” said Kuijs.
Questions began to swirl after China’s foreign minister read a statement Saturday in Buenos Aires that said Washington agreed to halt tariff hikes. Wang Yi failed to mention industrial policy or Trump’s demand that Beijing make progress in changing it or face renewed duty increases.
A Pledge That Appeared to Be Aimed at U.S. Complaints
That prompted some economists to ask whether Beijing was presenting a positive image for Chinese audiences or didn’t understand the depth of American opposition to its technology plans.
On Tuesday, China’s government issued a pledge that appeared to be aimed at mollifying U.S. complaints about rampant violations of patents and copyrights. It promised to create a list of violators that would make it harder for them to do business or get government support.
Analysts noted, however, there were no additional enforcement efforts.
“The notice won’t convince President Trump that China is taking a serious stance on the matter,” Irene Pang of ING said in a report.
Meanwhile, Rabobank suggested a simpler explanation Wednesday for China’s silence: Xi has yet to return to Beijing to approve official statements.
The president, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s, flew from Argentina to Panama for an official visit and on Wednesday was in Portugal.
“Talk about one-man rule!” Rabobank researchers said in a report. “(And does the man not have email?)”