BEIJING – On the surface, the freshly-inked US-China trade deal may look like China conceded a lot – what with its hefty commitment to purchase billions of dollars worth of American products, and enforceable pledges to play fair.
In exchange, it got the Americans to roll back just a fraction of the punitive tariffs that the superpower rained on Chinese exporters, even though Beijing has repeatedly called for the complete removal of duties.
The two rivals reached a truce on Wednesday (Jan 15) in their 18-month-long trade war that has rocked financial markets and put a dent in the global economy.
“I am counting a few key words in the trade agreement: ‘China shall’, ‘The parties shall’, ‘the United States shall’, ‘the United States affirms’. The number is quite uneven,” said OCBC Bank’s head of Greater China Research, Mr Tommy Xie.
“Clearly, ‘China shall’ has the most hits. From that perspective, we may argue that China may be more committed to the agreement,” he said.
But this is to be expected since it was the US that first sought redress of what it said were China’s unfair trade practices and economic policies.
“If the net result, however, is that there is a greater degree of stability in the bilateral trade and investment relationship and no further escalation, then China can arguably present it as a win-win,” said Hong Kong-based Stephen Olson, a research fellow at Hinrich Foundation and a former US trade negotiator.
In contrast to the fanfare that the White House lavished on the signing ceremony, there has been little hullabaloo in Beijing as the bureaucracy sought to downplay the deal.
One evidence of this was the absence of President Xi Jinping at the signing, said analysts.
Asked about this on Wednesday, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that both countries had negotiated and agreed on the arrangement of the ceremony.
State media and officials made it a point to describe the pact as one based on “equality and mutual respect”, where the US is subjected to an enforcement mechanism laid out in the deal as much as China is.
Certain write-ups also sounded a cautious tone, warning of the possibility of a derailment.
China Daily in an editorial said the “elation” at reaching the deal was “quickly tempered by suspicions that it would not take much to banjax the deal, and the sobering realisation that if that happened, it would not only stymie the next phase of negotiations, it would also have the two sides facing off again with tariffs drawn”.
Global Times, in a commentary, acknowledged the “huge uncertainty” that remains.
“It may be more difficult for China and the US to reach a comprehensive trade deal, but we hope the preliminary agreement will enlighten both sides’ further efforts,” it said.
What does China get out of this deal then?
It gets some time, said Shanghai-based Kenneth Jarrett, a former diplomat and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.
“It will de-escalate tensions to some degree,” said Mr Jarrett, who is now senior adviser at global business strategy firm Albright Stonebridge Group.
For consumers, it would mean more choices as China endeavours to fulfil its commitment to buy products, from poultry, baby formula to wine.
“For China, the key mentality is not what China can get out of this deal. China should think what will happen if there is no deal,” said OCBC’s Mr Xie.