Signs of hope in US-China trade war

Washington decides to delay new tariffs on Chinese electronics

Photo: Reuters Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and US President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Japan in June

US retailers and global financial markets got an early Christmas present Tuesday as President Donald Trump's administration announced it is delaying tariffs on key consumer electronic goods imported from China. News that top US and Chinese trade officials spoke by telephone early Tuesday offered further signs of a possible letup in the trade war that had been escalating in recent weeks.

Trump said that conversation was "very productive," and said he agreed to delay imposing tariffs on some goods to protect consumers going into the holiday shopping season -- even while continuing to insist that Americans are not paying for the tariffs. Amid relief over the view there might be an agreement that would forestall the feared hit to a world economy, global stock markets surged higher, especially electronics manufacturers like Apple after two days of declines.

Trump's 1 August tariff announcement prompted immediate outcry from retailers as they prepare for the holiday shopping season. The latest round of tariffs on $300bn in Chinese goods was due to take effect on 1 September and meant all Chinese imports into the United States would be subject to additional duties. But the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) said Tuesday it is delaying until 15 December the imposition of new 10% tariffs on Chinese-made cell phones, laptops, computer monitors, video game consoles and some toys, footwear and clothing.

An odd assortment of goods will benefit from the reprieve, including baby furniture, diapers and men's suits, as well as frozen fish, cigar holders, sugar beets, pesticides, bedding and school supplies. In addition, USTR said "certain products are being removed from the tariff list based on health, safety, national security and other factors and will not face additional tariffs of 10 percent."

About 25 product lines that will be exempted from any new tariffs include car seats, shipping containers and cranes for ports. Also Bibles and other religious literature.

The National Retail Federation cheered the decision, but warned that uncertainty continues, and tariffs "will result in higher costs for American families and slow the US economy." The business group urged Trump to join forces with allies to deal with China's "unfair trade practices." But Trump has repeatedly said he prefers unilateral action, and again Tuesday threatened to withdraw from the World Trade Organization.

"We know that they have been screwing us for years and it's not going to happen again," he said.

US and Chinese negotiators met in Shanghai in late July for the first time since talks collapsed in May, and the sides were due to hold another round of meetings in Washington in September. However, relations soured further in the past two weeks and Trump on Friday indicated that the next round of talks might not happen, saying Washington was "not ready to make a deal." and accusing Beijing of continuing to renege on its commitment to buy US agricultural goods.

"They said they are going to buy farm products. So far they have disappointed me," Trump said. "They haven't been truthful or let's say they certainly delayed the decision."

The United States is demanding that China make changes to reduce the US trade deficit. It wants Beijing to open China's economy to more foreign products and foreign companies, reduce subsidies and stop the theft of American technology. But at the same time Trump administration continues to pursue hardline tactics against China, repeatedly excoriating Beijing for backing out of conditions it says were agreed, and manipulating its currency to gain a trade advantage over American firms. 

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