A trade deal is only half the fight, getting it to stick is the real challenge

New Delhi | Updated: January 11, 2019 3:03:41 AM

Progress on early-stage talks—or indeed, an actual signed agreement ahead of the planned March deadline—is in many ways the easiest part of this process. Getting the deal to stick is the real challenge

The meetings “laid the foundation for resolving mutual concerns”, according to a statement on Thursday from China’s ministry of commerce. Similar noises came from the Office of the US Trade Representative.

By David Fickling

Equity markets have been rallying on the prospect that the trade-related cloud hanging over the global economy could be lifting.

The S&P 500 index is up more than 5% since Thursday, buoyed both by last week’s strong US jobs figures and the sense of momentum in talks between US and Chinese negotiators. The two countries can reach a deal they “can live with”, US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC on Monday. His boss seems equally optimistic:

That is reflected in the upbeat tone of statements from both sides following talks in Beijing this week. The meetings “laid the foundation for resolving mutual concerns”, according to a statement on Thursday from China’s ministry of commerce. Similar noises came from the Office of the US Trade Representative. There is a problem, though. Progress on early-stage talks—or indeed, an actual signed agreement ahead of the planned March deadline—is in many ways the easiest part of this process. Getting the deal to stick is the real challenge.

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“An agreement is fine but the history here has not been so good on compliance”, Ross told CNBC. “The real issue here is what are the enforcement mechanisms? What are the punishments if people don’t do what they were supposed to do”?
The major first-round breakthrough from the Buenos Aires meeting between president Donald Trump and president Xi Jinping—a touted Chinese crackdown on the opioid fentanyl—is a case in point. China has, in theory, been pouring herbicide on the fentanyl trade for three years now but the weeds keep growing. It is not clear if even this latest agreement will stick, or indeed what exactly has been agreed.

The most obvious compliance mechanism is the one that is already in operation: tariffs. The damage that both economies are increasingly suffering from these restraints on trade represent a potent piece of leverage in the talks. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is looking at only winding back the tariffs when there is evidence the Chinese are upholding their end of the deal, or merely suspending them so they can be reimposed if there is backsliding, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

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From Washington’s perspective, there is a compelling logic to that approach. Implementation of any deal will be “subject to ongoing verification and effective enforcement”, Lighthizer’s office said in its statement on Wednesday. The problem is how it will be perceived in Beijing.

After all, Chinese negotiators can argue that they’ve already offered several concessions in this process: opening the auto manufacturing, shipbuilding and aerospace industries to foreign entrants; allowing foreign companies to operate power grids, railways and gas stations; and introducing a new set of punishments to crack down on intellectual-property theft. They’re even removing tariffs on US car imports and restarting purchases of soybeans, cosmetic moves that nonetheless will be presented as evidence of Beijing’s flexibility.

If, in the face of a shaky economic outlook on both sides of the Pacific, a further round of concessions from Beijing is answered with no more than a promise from Washington to pause the trade war, there is a risk the fragile goodwill that’s emerged in recent weeks could evaporate very quickly. The two sides are closer on areas such as energy and agriculture but further apart on harder issues, people familiar with the talks told Andrew Mayeda and Miao Han of Bloomberg News. More to the point, the recent equity market rally has been predicated on the idea that a deal could lift the brake that tariffs are currently placing on the global economy.

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If removing the levies is contingent on the Chinese government providing evidence it can enforce its economic policies, that reassurance could be a long time coming.

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

 

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