The U.S. and China negotiated an agreement to keep negotiating. Following two days of high-stakes trade talks, the U.S. and China on Thursday settled on a roadmap and timetable for resolving the standoff. According to U.S. President Donald Trump, who met with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He after the talks, no deal will be inked until he can meet with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. This is what Beijing wants; it’s learned the hard way that agreements hammered out in even Cabinet-level negotiations are ephemeral, at best, unless Trump himself is directly involved. Beijing has reportedly proposed a summit in late February in Hainan, a short jaunt from where Trump is expected to be meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Notably, Trump left open the possibility that the U.S.-imposed March 1 deadline, after which the bulk of U.S. tariffs would increase to 25 percent, might be pushed back. The U.S. clearly thinks China is serious about making substantive concessions, but a preliminary or conditional agreement might be needed to give Beijing time to work out the mechanics of implementation. As always, the devil will be in the details, and what’s left out of the deal will shape U.S.-China relations for years to come.
Speaking of high-profile summits that leave core issues unresolved. The U.S. may be changing tack ahead of the expected second Trump-Kim meeting. On Thursday, U.S. North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun, who is heading to Seoul this weekend for talks with his North Korean counterpart, doubled down on U.S. demands that Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected. They include a complete disclosure of all nuclear and missile stockpiles and facilities and, ultimately, the “removal or destruction of stockpiles of fissile material, weapons, missiles, launchers and other weapons of mass destruction.” Biegun also said, however, that the corresponding measures Pyongyang demands – such as sanctions relief, security guarantees, curbs on U.S.-South Korea joint exercises and potentially a reduced U.S. presence on the peninsula – would be the subject of his talks this weekend. The two sides remain fundamentally at odds over the next steps. Pyongyang thinks it has lived up to its commitments and wants to be rewarded before doing anything to weaken its nuclear deterrent or expose secret facilities to U.S. attack. The U.S. fears that easing the pressure will remove what little leverage it still has, and thus allow Pyongyang to stall in perpetuity, so it wants tangible, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization measures first. If the U.S. concedes on sanctions relief, it will be giving up the ghost on full denuclearization and quietly shifting to a posture of managing, rather than removing, the North Korean threat.
The lost art of arms control. The U.S. is expected to formally announce its withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia as soon as today, after last-ditch talks to salvage the landmark Cold War-era pact failed to result in an agreement on Thursday. The withdrawal process would begin Sunday and would take roughly six months to complete. U.S. law is vague on whether the White House can pull out of a treaty without Congressional approval, but past attempts by U.S. presidents to do so unilaterally have generally succeeded. Regardless, with Russia openly flaunting the treaty since 2014, and with the White House viewing it as an unacceptable constraint on U.S. sovereignty, the INF has been dying slowly for some time. The main question now is whether its collapse really matters strategically. It will give the U.S. some space to deal with emerging threats from non-signatories in Asia (i.e. China and North Korea). In Europe, it may very well spark something of an arms (and missile defense) race, which will increase the risk of accident or miscalculation. But the biggest impact of this would be on defense budgets, not the balance of power or the reality that fear of nuclear war remains the main thing preventing nuclear war.
- France, Germany and the United Kingdom formally launched a system to facilitate trade with Iran without relying on direct financial transactions, thus bypassing U.S. sanctions.
- A majority of Senate Republicans voted for a declaration that the Islamic State’s continued presence in Syria and Afghanistan poses a serious threat to the U.S. Meanwhile, a draft Pentagon report expected to be released next week will declare that the Islamic State could regain territory in Syria within six to 12 months without continued military pressure.
- The number of U.S. troops in Syria has surged past 3,000 in recent days to facilitate the still-planned withdrawal by mid-spring, according to NBC.
- Venezuela’s central bank is reportedly sending some 15 metric tons of gold to the United Arab Emirates in exchange for euros.
- The free trade agreement between Japan and the EU came into force.
- China’s official purchasing managers’ index, a key gauge of factory activity among large Chinese firms, contracted for the second consecutive month. The Caixin PMI, which surveys mostly smaller, private manufacturers in China, dropped to a three-year low.
- China has reportedly offered to nearly halve the cost of a key Belt and Road Initiative rail project canceled by Malaysia.
- A leaked government survey suggests unemployment in India reached a 45-year high from mid-2017 to mid-2018.
- At least 24 suspected militants were killed in U.S. airstrikes in central Somalia on Wednesday, according to the Pentagon.
- Lebanese political factions broke a nine-month impasse and agreed to form a new government.