The U.S. and China are circling ever closer to a trade deal. They just need to agree on how to make it mean something a year or two from now. In the weeks since U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to postpone the March 1 spike in tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods, enough progress has apparently been made that both sides are eyeing a “signing summit” between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping by June. This cautious optimism is fueled by several factors, from Beijing’s offer to nudge down the trade deficit by binging on U.S. energy and agriculture products, to new laws set to be approved this week that include expanded protections for foreign investors. Trump’s barely concealed urgency to give markets a boost by calling off the dogs is probably furthering hopes in Beijing.

But “ending” the trade war still appears to mean something quite different to each side. China, naturally, wants to put this whole unpleasantness behind it and to turn its full focus to its staggering domestic headaches, and is reportedly demanding that all tariffs be lifted immediately. The U.S., naturally, is wary of China’s history of backsliding on rigorously negotiated deals, and presumably aware that it would take Beijing years to implement some of the structural reforms Washington is demanding. Washington needs to hold on to at least some leverage to ensure that the Chinese follow through. As a result, the U.S. is reportedly offering only to lift tariffs incrementally (while Chinese counter-tariffs would be lifted immediately). What’s more, the U.S also wants snapback mechanisms in place to further discourage Beijing from backsliding.

In other words, the focus of the talks has evidently moved to the thorny issues of implementation and enforcement. This speaks to a core problem bedeviling U.S. aims in the matter: Given that U.S. tariffs are only one of many problems weighing on Beijing, can the U.S.-China trade dispute really be negotiated away?

Keeping to a Deal

Whether the U.S. has any real urgency beyond political interests to wrap up a deal depends on whether it believes its broader strategic aims merit the costs of the trade war. The U.S. economy is at the peak of the business cycle and will eventually come back to earth. And the diminishing returns of a tool as blunt as tariffs for forcing China to make systemic changes are starting to become clear. Already, according to the Institute of International Finance, Chinese counter-tariffs are costing U.S. exporters more than $3 billion per month. The higher cost of imports is falling primarily on U.S. consumers, with losses expected to approach $70 billion this year, according to two new authoritative studies. None of this is devastating to the U.S., but Washington can’t ignore the ghost of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff – which raised duties on 20,000 imported items and contributed to the severe economic deterioration of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, there’s no evidence suggesting Beijing is preparing to make the sweeping structural changes demanded by the U.S. To get everything it wants from Beijing, the U.S. would have to keep up the pressure for years – likely well into an economic downturn, and certainly during a key election year. Moreover, even if annual Chinese growth plummets to 3-4 percent, it will still be adding hundreds of billions of dollars in new consumption. The opportunity cost to U.S. exporters is steep.

If the U.S. deems the costs necessary to stunt China’s rise, then no deal is imminent. Otherwise, the U.S. has an interest in settling for quite a bit less up front. By agreeing to a limited deal, pairing relief from specific tariffs with implementation of select concessions by Beijing, Washington can gradually ease the burden on the U.S. entities hurting most – exporters, firms with supply chains routed through China, firms dependent on lower-cost Chinese inputs, and consumers. And it will still have other tools like export controls, investment restrictions and the embattled but still potent World Trade Organization dispute settlement courts with which to protect U.S. firms and target Chinese practices that pose the biggest long-term threat, particularly in the race for technological supremacy. Whether or not the current negotiations produce a substantive deal, U.S. pressure in these areas isn’t going away.

But to trade hawks in the Trump administration, the sense of urgency to get a deal risks undermining efforts to address the very real problem of post-deal implementation – and giving Beijing incentive to try to run out the clock on what it sees as an impatient president. (Beijing would be foolish to think the next U.S. administration will be fundamentally more dovish, but it’s reasonable to think political and economic complications in the coming years will weaken U.S. appetite for a sustained offensive.) China has a mixed history, at best, of implementing deals. If it had fulfilled all of its WTO obligations, after all, it wouldn’t be in this position in the first place.

Beijing is trapped between oft-conflicting imperatives: economic dynamism and social stability. Under Xi, it has routinely prioritized the latter, deepening state domination of the economy in ways that have provoked the U.S., but that also helped maintain steady employment and manage China’s immense internal financial risks. Tariffs are a far smaller problem for China than internal dysfunction. But the duties are making Beijing’s tightrope walk of internal reform ever more precarious. In all likelihood, China will agree to whatever it deems necessary to make the tariffs go away. But if keeping order necessitates cheating on its commitments and risking a backlash, Beijing won’t hesitate.

What the U.S. Can Do

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is trying to make it harder for Beijing to backslide in a couple ways. The U.S. is insisting that concessions from Beijing be as explicit and quantifiable as possible. (Lighthizer says the agreement will exceed 110 pages.) The easier it is to identify cheating, the greater the reputational costs for Beijing and the easier it will be for Washington to make the case to the U.S. public and allies that pressure be revived. There are two main problems here: One, the Chinese system is exceedingly opaque, especially given the dominance of state-owned enterprises. Two, implementation progress on the biggest issues – forced technological transfers and cyber theft, for example – can’t easily be quantified or monitored. Thus, the U.S. is also demanding the right to independently assess whether China is living up to what it considers the spirit of the deal – and to unilaterally reimpose tariffs, without retaliation, if it concludes Beijing is falling short.

Still, these sorts of measures can do only so much. Trade deals, like most international agreements, last only as long as each side is willing to comply, which is why they tend to work only when they are truly in both sides’ interests. Either way, it’s really hard to make them binding. There won’t be any trade cops to make arrests when there’s a violation. The U.S. isn’t going to threaten war to enforce this sort of deal. Nor can the U.S. really take too much reassurance from measures like China’s new foreign ownership law, which would ostensibly help address the issue of forced technology transfersThe new law is vague, and Beijing has only so much ability and interest to enforce it at a granular level. (Trade lawyers say tech transfer typically happens willingly, often by foreign firms that are desperate for funding or that simply failed to adequately protect themselves under existing Chinese laws.) And when it comes to core technologies Beijing deems critical for initiatives like next-generation military applications, all bets are off. Law in China is applied only to the extent that it serves the Communist Party’s interests.

This isn’t to say China won’t have reasons beyond the lure of tariff relief to continue to comply. A lot of what Beijing will likely concede is fairly low-hanging fruit. For example, it’s expected to pledge to refrain from artificially weakening its currency (currently, it’s trying to keep the yuan from collapsing) and to buy more U.S. goods (items it needs to import anyway). Its measures to improve intellectual property protections, meanwhile, are needed to reassure spooked foreign investors, ease discontent among domestic private firms fed up with their state-owned counterparts, and further erode the U.S. business community’s support for the trade war. Countries often use trade agreements to bring recalcitrant domestic players obstructing needed reforms into line. And Beijing has a real need to repair its image abroad. The trade war has triggered a slow-motion stampede to the exits by foreign firms in the country, while also intensifying the spotlight on internal practices, deterring new investment. It’ll be dealing with the fallout of this for years and has ample reason to let the U.S. lose interest.

But structural reforms like ending industrial subsidies and scaling back the state’s role in the economy would be an order of magnitude trickier for Beijing to implement. These issues also happen to be at the heart of U.S. grievances. Even if the U.S. can pressure China into including concessions in these areas in the deal, it will be an exceedingly wobbly deal, however many pages it runs.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.