The Trump administration is not aiming to “cleve off” the U.S. economy from China’s, but it intends to continue pressuring the Asian giant even though tough moves like repeated rounds of tariffs have yet to bring the fundamental changes President Donald Trump is demanding.
“Our goal is not to totally divorce our economies from each other,” said a senior official who briefed reporters Friday at the White House about trade matters. “Our goal is for China to stop behaving unfairly.”
And the official also gave no indication that talks with Canada are any closer than where they were weeks ago to bring Ottawa into a preliminary U.S.-Mexico deal that might replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Even as some lawmakers and economists warn the world’s two largest economies trading blows has the global economy teetering on the cusp of a trade war with economic ripple waves, the senior official made clear the administration has no plans to dial back its actions toward China.
Trump’s trade rhetoric and actions have “gotten more attention because it’s been bigger and bolder, but I think it’s consistent with the way past administrations have used tariffs, which is: If we see unfair practices, we’re going to take action to address them with the hope that ultimately we get to a world where there are less tariffs, less non-tariff barriers, and less subsidies.”
The senior official did not hide his frustration, repeatedly telling reporters not to buy Chinese officials’ alleged confusion about what the U.S. side wants out of ongoing — but stalled — negotiations because “they know what we need.”
But it is not clear just how far Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are willing to take what the senior official described as a “little dispute” — rejecting a reporter’s use of the term “economic warfare” — between the two countries. What is more clear is Xi and his government have yet to blink in a high-stakes game of economic chicken.
“We tried to work through the Global Steel Forum. I’ll be the first to say, I wish that would yield some results, but it hasn’t,” the senior official said, using an long-running U.S.-Chinese dispute about the latter’s practices with that commodity.
“China still will not turn over the most basic information about its steel industries. They won’t get rid of the subsidies [for their companies] that the Steel Forum has recognized they need to.”
American farmers and other agriculture-based industries have been hit hard by Trump’s tariffs and China’s retaliatory ones. Asked if those sectors should expect the import fees to remain in place indefinitely, the senior official also blamed Beijing.
“I don’t know when China will commit” to the changes the Trump administration is demanding, he said. “I hope it will be soon.”
As Trump’s aides often do, the senior official delivered his often-tough words with a lighter touch – but still sending a message to China: “The president is willing to do what it takes to solve this problem. … The hope is China realizes that.”
Another senior official told reporters in late August that Chinese officials had yet to move toward the changes in behavior the U.S. would like to see. “But so far,” that official said, “we have yet to see those.” It appears little progress was made in the weeks since.
On the talks with Canada, the senior official repeatedly described himself as “still optimistic” the U.S.-Mexico pact soon will become a three-way deal. But he acknowledged time is running out as a Sept. 30 congressionally set deadline nears.
“Canada needs to decide what it wants to do,” the official said. “Until we hit that date, there’s still an opportunity to get this done.”
He said the question remains whether Canadian officials “will kill this deal because of its dairy farmers” which he dubbed a small part of its overall economy.
Some lawmakers have warned the White House to do what it must to get Canada to join the deal, saying a two-way pact with Mexico would not be economically viable – especially since Canada is America’s No. 1 export market.
The officials declined to provide the White House’s whip count or say just how close votes might be should it submit the deal without Canada. But he did say Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and other agriculture-state members routinely tell Trump officials to “fix this agriculture problem.”
Insisting Congress ultimately would approve a U.S.-Mexico agreement, the official said “there’s a lot for Congress to like” while acknowledging this: “I’m not going to tell you it wouldn’t be better if we had all three.”
Watch: McConnell, Schumer React to Trump Trade Deal