US and Chinese officials say a historic deal ending their ongoing trade war could be imminent, but a key question is how can Washington be sure Beijing will live up to its end of the bargain?

With up to 100 Chinese officials reportedly expected next week in Washington, with the possibility of unveiling a grand agreement after months of tensions, that question is hanging over the talks.

Beijing may make eye-popping offers to buy American energy and agriculture exports as a means of cutting the soaring US-China trade deficit (US$378.7 billion in 2018, including services trade), but all eyes will be on whether the agreement has any teeth.

mike pence
File photo: Department of Defense.

US Vice President Mike Pence said Friday the enforcement mechanism would be key to the decision on whether to remove the punishing US tariffs which now cover more than US$250 billion in Chinese imports.

“The reason enforcement has become central to this negotiation is the long history of China not living up to the spirit of the commitments it has made in the WTO and in bilateral negotiations with the US and other countries,” Edward Alden, a trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused China of stealing from the United States by buying less from America than it sells.

But Trump also has demanded structural changes to the Chinese economy, including an end to forced transfer of American technology, theft of intellectual property and the massive role the Chinese government plays in markets and industry.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who is leading the US delegation along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, has insisted Washington will not accept empty promises and will demand verification Beijing is keeping its word.

Reaching trade agreements with China can be especially challenging, given that its regulations are not transparent, Alden said.

Meeting Between the United States and China on Trade
United States Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, senior staff and cabinet members meet with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and members of his delegation for the U.S. – China trade talks Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. Photo: White House.

“China can change its laws in ways that please the United States, but then use regulatory tools to thwart implementation.”

 ‘That’s the core’ 

To ensure strict compliance, US negotiators have proposed monthly, quarterly and semi-annual meetings, with the twice-yearly meetings to involving the most senior officials.

And should American businesses report violations of the agreement, Washington could begin a series of consultations with their Chinese counterparts, and then unilaterally impose new tariffs if no resolution is achieved, according to US media reports.

But China also would have recourse to the same tariff tool in case of a US violation.

“The enforcement mechanism is crucial to the agreement,” Doug Barry, spokesman for the US-China Business Council, told AFP.

“Without a credible, time specific, verifiable means to hold parties accountable, we will miss an opportunity to put the trade relationship on a new and better footing.”

Alden says the tool under discussion appears novel because bilateral free trade agreements typically resolve disputes through arbitration panels which oversee retaliatory tariffs, similar to the World Trade Organization dispute settlement process.

Businesses on both sides of the Pacific want the talks to wrap up as soon as possible to reduce uncertainty in international commerce at a time when the trade war has weighed on manufacturing sectors in both countries.

usa china
Photo: Lance Cheung, via Flickr.

Among the top 15 US states exporting to China, many have been hit hard by China’s retaliatory tariffs on soy, pork or in the aviation sector, including Alabama, Illinois and Washington State, according to the US-China Business Council.

Companies are calling for the tariffs imposed last year — which cover more than $360 billion in two-way trade — to be lifted.

But Washington hopes to retain the ability to resort to tariffs as a cudgel.

“We have to maintain the right to be able to — whatever happens to the current tariffs — to raise tariffs in situations where there’s violations of the agreement,” Lighthizer said in Senate testimony in March.

“That’s the core. If we don’t do that, then none of it makes any difference.”

But, according to Alden, that could create “ongoing uncertainty” for businesses unaware of when either side could seek to impose unilateral tariffs.

Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

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