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No Art to the US-China Trade Deal

The real problem with the phase one accord announced on October 11 is the basic structure of the deal into which it presumably fits. From trade to currency, the approach is the same – prescribing bilateral remedies for multilateral problems.

NEW HAVEN – Dealmakers always know when to cut their losses. And so it is with the self-proclaimed greatest dealmaker of them all: US President Donald Trump. Having promised a Grand Deal with China, the 13th round of bilateral trade negotiations ended on October 11 with barely a whimper, yielding a watered-down partial agreement: the “phase one” accord.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Trump administration’s three-pronged negotiating strategy has long featured a major reduction in the bilateral trade deficit, a conflict-resolution framework to address problems ranging from alleged intellectual-property theft and forced technology transfer to services reforms and so-called non-tariff barriers, along with a tough enforcement mechanism. According to one of the lead US negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the Grand Deal was about 90% done in May, before it all unraveled in a contentious blame game and a further escalation of tit-for-tat tariffs.

But hope springs eternal. As both economies started to show visible signs of distress, there was new optimism that reason would finally prevail, even in the face of an escalating weaponization of policy by the United States: threatened capital controls, rumored delisting of Chinese companies whose shares trade on American stock exchanges, new visa restrictions, a sharp expansion of blacklisted Chinese firms on the dreaded Entity List, and talk of congressional passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. Financial markets looked the other way and soared in anticipation in the days leading up to the October 11 announcement.

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