The Soro Maesk container ship, operated by A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, sails to Yangshan Deep Water Port in Shanghai, China. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Mixed Messages From U.S. Run Risk of Sinking Trade Talks Again

(Bloomberg) -- Mixed messages coming from the U.S. on the trade war with China could sink prospective negotiations before they begin, damaging prospects for a resolution to the growing dispute.

With President Donald Trump telling aides to proceed with additional tariffs on Chinese products, the Chinese government is considering declining the offer of talks, according to a Wall Street Journal report, which cited officials with knowledge of the discussions. Beijing last week welcomed the invitation to meet with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, an offer which was then undermined by a tweet from the president.

Stocks in Asia and Europe tumbled on Monday and futures for U.S. equities all pointed to a weaker open as a rally late last week on optimism of talks fizzled.

The lack of unity within the U.S. administration on trade isn’t new -- Chinese and American officials have held a series of talks over the dispute, and reached at least one agreement which was subsequently abandoned by the President. The lack of progress and collapse of that deal have made future negotiations more difficult, as it’s unclear who speaks for the U.S. administration and there’s a lack of confidence that any deal will be honored.

"The two sides are still lacking trust," said Raymond Yeung, chief greater China economist for Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. in Hong Kong. "China sees the U.S.’s action following Liu He’s visit in May as dishonorable," he said, adding that Trump’s tariff threat only rubs salt into the wound.

Trust Lacking

Officials from both countries have met four times for formal talks, most recently in August, when Treasury’s undersecretary for international affairs, David Malpass, led discussions in Washington with Chinese Vice Minister Wang Shouwen. The collapse of the May talks between Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and Mnuchin left Mnuchin discredited with Beijing as an interlocutor, according to people who have met with senior Chinese officials in recent weeks.

The Chinese foreign ministry has repeatedly called for talks based on "equality and good faith," indicating their concern about previous rounds of negotiations.

"Given divided trade policy preferences within the administration and continued news flow that hints at President Trump’s preference for tariffs, it remains unclear if potential high-level talks will yield any meaningful results," according to a research note from Nomura Holdings Inc. economists in the U.S. "We see increasingly fewer reasons for the Trump administration to divert from the gradual trajectory towards more protectionism, especially on China."

Potential Retaliation

Beijing isn’t prepared to negotiate with a “gun pointed to its head,” according to the Wall Street Journal report, adding that officials are also considering potential retaliation steps, the report said. China has already detailed thousands of U.S. items that it would levy extra tariffs on if the $200 billion threat is carried out.

China’s commerce and finance ministries didn’t immediately respond to request for comment Monday on the trade discussions, but the comments are similar to statements by Chinese officials over the past few months.

“If one party does not honor its words, talks cannot succeed,” Vice Minister Wang said in an interview in Geneva in July. For negotiations to succeed, “no party should point a gun at the other party,” he said.

Some Chinese officials advising the leadership are proposing to step up the trade fight a notch by restricting China’s sales of materials, equipment and other parts key to U.S. manufacturers’ supply chains, the Wall Street Journal report said. Such restrictions could even apply to Apple Inc.’s iPhones, which are assembled in the mainland, the report said.

‘U.S. Offensives’

It’s nothing new for the U.S. administration to try to escalate tensions so as to exploit more gains at the negotiation table and China "will not just play defense" against the backdrop of "successive U.S. offensives in the trade war," the Global Times, a tabloid run by the official People’s Daily, said in an editorial late Sunday.

An announcement of the new round of tariffs has been delayed as the administration considers revisions based on concerns raised in public comments, according to four people familiar with the matter. Trump may be running low on products he can target without significant backlash from major U.S. companies and consumers, two of the people said.

The new round of tariffs would be in addition those on $50 billion of Chinese goods that already face a 25 percent duty. The Chinese have retaliated with tariffs on an equivalent amount of U.S. exports, and have promised to retaliate against future rounds of U.S. duties.

Trump has threatened a third tranche of tariffs on another $267 billion of Chinese imports, which would mean levying duties on nearly everything China exports to the U.S. Trump said at the time those tariffs were “ready to go on short notice,” but the administration hasn’t yet published a list for public comment.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.