Officials Keep U.S.-China Trade Deal Alive Despite 'Tantrum Diplomacy'

In a year where U.S.-China relations have been on a knife's edge, the most recent developments in the pair's relationship have shown how contradictory Trump administration messaging can be.

This morning, reports emerged that U.S. and Chinese officials had reaffirmed their commitment to phase one of their joint trade deal in a call.

The call, involving Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, is the first formal dialogue between the two sides since May.

"Both sides see progress and are committed to taking the steps necessary to ensure the success of the agreement," Mnuchin's office said in a statement after the call, which came six months on from an initial agreement and amid worsening diplomatic relations.

Both sides have traded escalating gripes over multiple issues over the past few months. Chief among these were the national security laws imposed on Hong Kong, security breaches from large Chinese tech firms and the spread and control of the coronavirus.

The call comes in the same week TikTok launched legal proceedings against the U.S.'s drive to banish it.

The company's parent ByteDance is currently seeking a U.S. company to buy it and take it out of Chinese hands after an executive order issued by the Trump administration. Possible suitors include Oracle, Twitter and Microsoft.

Despite these flashpoints, policy experts aren't surprised by the inconsistencies in messaging.

"The way Trump deals with China is sometimes referred to as 'tantrum diplomacy,'" George Magnus, associate at Oxford University's China Centre and research associate at SOAS in London, told Newsweek. "With a Trump policy it's difficult to tell what's going to happen next."

"There is a conflict of messaging, when you see the kind of anti-China rhetoric in major policy speeches, which are opposed to Chinese values, beliefs and policies. Within these we can see the TikTok story, the Huawei story, and actions taken against other companies that are on the entity list."

"It's not in either side's interest to break the one agreement they have," Magnus says of the trade deal.

Magnus points out that the trade deal may well have originally been an election ploy, before the coronavirus set in.

"I see the tariff and the tech war as part of the same struggle against an adversary, in the context of resetting the relationship," he says.

"What was the most contentious part of the relationship is now, relatively speaking, the most stable. I don't think anyone would have guessed that that was going to happen," Magnus continues.

"Trade, ironically, has become an anchor in the relationship that was otherwise deteriorating across the board."

Magnus notes that given the nature of what we have seen since February, onlookers would have chalked the trade deal up as a casualty of that.

Jan Knoerich, senior lecturer in the economy of China at King's College London, also notes that for some years the U.S. has ramped up its scrutiny of companies such as Huawei, a scrutiny that is now moving to other sectors.

"It may seem like what the U.S. is doing doesn't correlate, but oversight of trade and tech companies are different types of economic activity," Knoerich told Newsweek.

"This trade deal was only a first phase, and only covers a certain amount of things," he says.

"In the long run Trump's focus might have shifted to things that seem more fundamental."

TikTok logo on phone
In this photo illustration, the download page for the Tiki Tok app is displayed on an Apple iPhone on August 7, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that bans any transactions between the parent company of TikTok, ByteDance, and U.S. citizens due to national security reasons. The president signed a separate executive order banning transactions with China-based tech company Tencent, which owns the app WeChat. Both orders are set to take effect in 45 days. Drew Angerer/Getty Images