A senior Democratic lawmaker has warned the Trump administration not to settle “easy one-off transactions” with China amid mounting signs that the US president is prepared to strike a deal with Xi Jinping by early March that would avoid a new escalation in tariffs.

Richard Neal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, which has oversight over US trade policy, told the Financial Times that US-China policy had to be “in the best interests” of America “today and for the future”. 

“USTR has an obligation to look beyond the political pressures of the moment and the easy, one-off transactions, and secure real and lasting change to China’s anti-competitive behaviour,” Mr Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement to the Financial Times, referring to the office of the US trade representative led by Robert Lighthizer, the chief negotiator with China. 

Mr Neal’s comments come as the bitter trade stand-off of last year between Washington and Beijing has given way to detailed negotiations to solve the dispute. Last week, US negotiators travelled to Beijing for talks over three days that appeared to make reasonable progress, while Liu He, China’s top economic official, is expected to visit Washington later this month for a new round of negotiations. 

After calling a truce to their trade war over steak dinner in Buenos Aires in early December, Mr Trump and Mr Xi set March 2 as a deadline to strike a more comprehensive agreement. 

Both sides have been feeling mounting pressure to reach an accommodation amid fears of a global economic slowdown and rocky financial markets. However, although Democrats in Congress have argued that Mr Trump’s trade bluster and tariffs risked backfiring, they are likely to criticise him if he clinches a deal with China that relieves pressure on the economy but contains few substantive concessions. 

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“The president should be making trade policy to help American workers, not Wall Street,” said Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senator from Ohio. “If the president wants to fulfil his promise of getting tough on China, he needs to secure a deal that includes long-term structural reforms that will stop China’s unfair trade practices and ensure American workers can compete on a level playing field.” 

The US has been trying to persuade China to buy more American products to reduce their bilateral trade deficit, but also to change some of its more controversial and deep-seated economic policies on innovation, foreign investment and subsidies, which is a much more difficult task. 

 US business groups have been angling for a deal, but even they are urging Mr Trump not to concede too easily. 

“The business community remains primarily interested in the structural reforms that would result in enduring access, a level playing field and an end to use of regulations that too often force technology transfer or otherwise disadvantage US firms, not in one-off purchasing commitments by China,” said Myron Brilliant, executive vice-president and head of international affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce. “We understand there is more progress needed on these critical issues, and we hope the administration remains focused on dealing with them in dialogues to come,” he said. 

Since Mr Lighthizer is considered one of the hardliners on China in the US administration, many supporters of a tough stance towards Beijing have felt reassured that Mr Trump would not accept a weak agreement, compared to earlier talks led by Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury secretary, and Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary. But even they conceded that if Mr Trump were getting cold feet with respect to his tough line on trade with China, Mr Lighthizer would have to go along with it.

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One key question is not just what Beijing is prepared to offer, but to what degree the US would be willing to meet Chinese demands to unwind all of the tariffs imposed over the past year if a deal were reached. 

Staunch supporters of the US president still believe he will keep his nerve, and Mr Trump was fundamentally determined to challenge China, and was prepared to bear the consequences heading into his re-election campaign. But doubts about his resolve are creeping in. 

“This is go big or go home, now. This is it,” said one China trade hawk in Washington. “He’s complained about successive administrations but he risks not getting anything more than Obama or Bush or anyone else could have gotten. He’s Mr Tough, he’s the Art of the Deal, he created all this drama, only to kick the can down the road to fight another day?”



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