After 14 hours of dizzying headline hockey ahead of key, principal-level trade talks in Washington, Donald Trump went ahead and injected a bit of showmanship into the mix.
Earlier in the week, media reports indicated the Chinese side was keen on narrowing the scope of any potential agreement to exclude subsidy reform, IP theft and forced technology transfer. Those are obviously crucial sticking points for hardliners within the Trump administration and after two days of deadlocked deputy-level talks, some suggested Vice Premier Liu He would spend just one day in Washington before departing earlier than anticipated.
US officials rushed to play that down and on Thursday morning, Trump said he’ll hold another one of his infamous Oval Office photo ops with Liu on Friday. “Big day of negotiations with China”, he said, adding that “I meet with the Vice Premier tomorrow at The White House”. That was good enough to engineer a rally in US equities, which had been whipsawed by conflicting headlines.
Following a dour-sounding SCMP article detailing the near breakdown of talks between lower-level officials earlier this week, subsequent reporting suggested the Trump administration might aim to roll out a mothballed currency pact originally agreed in April and could grant licenses for US firms to supply Huawei as part of a “limited” deal with China.
For their part, Chinese negotiators are said to be pressing for the lifting of sanctions on units of shipping giant COSCO.
The “best” part of Trump’s Thursday morning tweet – which actually is important, as it effectively means the administration has convinced Liu not to leave early, presumably knowing that would lead to a dastardly market rout – is that the president posed it as a question to himself.
“They want to make a deal, but do I?”, Trump asked of… Trump?
Nobody knows, sir. But what we do know is that Oval Office press time with Liu He has a tendency to produce cringe-worthy moments. Back in April, for example, Trump said the following while seated next to Liu:
We’re getting very close to making a deal, but that doesn’t mean a deal has been made because it’s not, but we’re certainly getting a lot closer and I would think within… within the next four weeks, or maybe less, maybe more, whatever it takes, something very monumental could be announced.
He was right. Something “monumental” was announced. Three weeks later, he escalated the trade war, raising the tariff rate on $250 billion in Chinese goods, shattering the five-month-old Buenos Aires truce in the process.
At a similarly ridiculous press event in February, Trump and Bob Lighthizer got into an argument in front of bemused Liu over the meaning of the word “contract”. They also debated the relative merits of MOUs.
Liu could only laugh.