Is the United States looking for a fight or a deal? That’s the fundamental question that a mystified Chinese scholar and former government official posed to me when we met recently in Washington, D.C., as the scholar wrapped up a fact-finding mission to the U.S. capital in the heat of an escalating trade war between the world’s largest economies.
On Tuesday—fresh off signing a revised trade agreement with South Korea and announcing another with Canada and Mexico, both spurred along by the specter of U.S. tariffs—Donald Trump suggested that it’s a deal he’s after. “We’re … fixing decades of disastrous trade deals that have plundered our factories and stolen our wealth and our jobs,” the president told electrical contractors in Philadelphia. “China has been taking out of our country $500 billion a year, and it was time to stop. Nobody ever did it. It’s crazy … We’re going to have a great relationship with China, but we have to be fair to ourselves also.”
In truth, however, Trump’s endgame with China may not actually be establishing a fairer trading relationship. There’s a popular perception that Trump is “building leverage” with the tariffs he’s imposed on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese goods and “trying to make a deal,” noted Ely Ratner, a China expert at the Center for a New American Security and former Obama administration official, during a panel moderated by James Fallows at The Atlantic Festival on Wednesday. But for certain officials in the Trump administration, “there is no deal. The tariffs are the end point.”
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