US President Donald Trump opened the door to extending trade talks with China past the current March 1 deadline to avoid an escalation of tariffs, saying he could allow more time for negotiations if Beijing and Washington were close to a breakthrough.
“If we’re close to a deal where we think we can make a real deal and it’s going to get done, I could see myself letting that slide for a little while,” Mr Trump said at the beginning of a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. “But generally speaking, I’m not inclined to do that.”
Mr Trump’s willingness to consider a later deadline for the talks comes as senior officials in his administration, including Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, were scheduled to hold a new round of talks with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing this week.
Although Washington has managed to extract some concessions from China on additional purchases of US goods to narrow the trade gap over time, it has still struggled to obtain commitments on big structural economic reforms from Beijing, which could require additional negotiations.
Senior US officials have previously said that March 1 — when tariffs on $200bn of Chinese imports to the US are set to increase from 10 per cent to 25 per cent — was a hard deadline that would not shift.
“I’m expecting that we have one deadline and that’s March 1 at midnight. March 1, tariffs go up,” Mr Lighthizer told reporters as recently as February 1.
At the time, Mr Trump was considering a new summit with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, at the end of February, to iron out the biggest sticking points in the trade dispute, including US demands that China stop forcing the transfer of technology from US companies and clamp down on industrial subsidies.
But last week Mr Trump ruled out such a meeting during his upcoming visit to Asia at the end of the month, when he is due to meet Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, in Vietnam. As the trade talks with China have intensified in recent weeks, Mr Trump has been upbeat about the prospects for a deal, but has also sought to show that the US could live without one.
“China wants to make a deal very badly. I want it to be a real deal, not just a deal that cosmetically looks good for a year. We have a chance to really make a deal, a real deal with China. We’ve never been in this position before,” the US president said, adding that he still expected a meeting with Mr Xi to happen “at some point” to “make the parts of the deal that the group is unable to make”.
“That’s the way deals happen,” Mr Trump said.