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Former Trade Negotiator Weighs In On New Agreement Between The U.S. And China


The U.S. and China have agreed to hit pause on their escalating trade war. Now comes the hard part - the details. At the G-20 meeting in Argentina this weekend, President Trump and China's president, Xi Jinping, sat down for dinner and, according to the U.S. readout, agreed to a 90-day timeline to reach terms on issues that have dogged the trade relationship for years, everything from intellectual property protections to reducing tariffs. Amy Celico joins me now. She is an expert on China trade. She was senior director for China at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Amy Celico, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AMY CELICO: Great to be here.

KELLY: So we know President Trump's take on this meeting, which is that it was extraordinary - his word. He was tweeting that this morning and also tweeting, quote, "relations with China have taken a big leap forward." What is your assessment of how big a leap Trump and Xi made?

CELICO: Well, I do think that the temporary halt in escalation of trade tension a significant achievement, and we should be pleased about that. The markets are pleased about that. We don't want to see more tariffs harming both of our economies as we try to deal with much more significant structural issues. Unfortunately I didn't see a lot coming out of the Saturday evening dinner that points to changing the direction - the downward direction in the trajectory of U.S.-China relations in the near term.

KELLY: Yeah, this was a dinner from which emerged an agreement but not a lot of details. We've seen this before from President Trump. It's reminding me of the Kim Jong Un summit on North Korea where no one was quite clear afterward exactly what had been agreed.

CELICO: Indeed. The devil's in the details. And the two countries have been reporting on the results of the dinner in very different ways. Of course since Saturday night, we've heard from the president some of the steps China may be taking to lower tariff rates and purchase commodities. But in fact, the Chinese government and media statements on the result of the meeting do not reference any Chinese purchase agreements, no tariff lowering measures. They don't even specify that this is a 90-day timetable for this next round of trade negotiations.

KELLY: The trade relationship of course doesn't exist in a vacuum. It exists in the context of the overall U.S.-China relationship. I mean, setting - taking trade out of it for a moment, how healthy is that broader relationship?

CELICO: What I remain concerned about is both in the United States and in China, national security issues are creeping into economic policymaking, and that makes it very difficult for our two sides to have a constructive relationship going forward.

KELLY: You're talking about - what? - tensions over North Korea, tensions over China's rising military might. What?

CELICO: I'm referring to Vice President Pence's speech earlier this fall at the Hudson Institute where he accused China of fundamentally trying to undermine the United States politically, diplomatically, economically, commercially. The concerns that I have is the U.S. government may start to restrict, for example, visas to Chinese students coming to study certain topics in the United States for fear of these topics helping China's economy grow and rival the United States. That is a very dark view of the future of China in the world.

KELLY: To take this down from the grand diplomatic level and just onto the personal level, you know work as a consultant. You work with Americans who do business in China or are trying to do business in China. How hopeful are you that this trade dispute will resolve in some way that benefits American businesses?

CELICO: I am optimistic that people in the United States and people in China want this relationship to be on a positive footing. Unfortunately I am more pessimistic than I've been in 20 years about the prospect for U.S.-China ties because our governments seem to be growing increasingly comfortable with competition that is marked more by mistrust and enmity than management of the two largest economies in the world being competitors and being able to manage that competition constructively.

KELLY: That's Amy Celico. She heads the China team at the business advisory firm the Albright Stonebridge Group. Amy Celico, thank you.

CELICO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.