As US President Donald Trump and China’s Vice-Premier Liu He sign their phase one trade agreement, the circumstances differ from previous key stages of their talks in Washington. The Oval Office, where Liu has been part of several lively – and sometimes awkward – press briefings on the results of negotiation rounds over the past year, is not accommodating the 200 or so business executives invited to take part. The larger scale requires the White House’s East Room, nearly three times the size of the Oval Office. Commonly used for bill signing ceremonies, formal receptions, press conferences and award ceremonies, the space features heavy gold coloured curtains and walls of classical fluted pilasters and relief insets, painted white. Liu’s earlier post-negotiation appearances with Trump were limited to the two negotiating teams and the White House press corps. But one element will be consistent: a lack of clarity on where the two sides stand. Nearly a year ago, the Oval Office was the setting for a tense exchange between Trump and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that ended with the US president ordering his top trade negotiator to not use memorandums of understanding, or MOUs, as the basis for progress in trade talks because “they don’t mean anything”. The minor contretemps, which played out in front of the media, ended with Lighthizer telling Liu that they would no longer put the outlines of their negotiations in MOUs. Seated next to Lighthizer at the time, Liu simply said: “OK”. Similarly, while some details of the phase one agreement have been released by the Chinese and US sides, many analysts and US government officials are waiting for the full text, which is not likely to be made public before Trump and Liu sign it. After arriving in Washington on Monday evening, Liu’s delegation held further talks at the headquarters of the US Trade Representative’s Office (USTR) on Tuesday. No details emerged from the meeting after they departed to chants from a small group of protesters outside the building. Earlier in the day, Liu met Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. She later said on Twitter that the meeting “was an opportunity to hear his views on the expected ‘Phase 1’ agreement”. “Thus far, everything about this negotiation has been upside down,” Jeff Moon, president of the China Moon Strategies consultancy and a former official at the USTR and National Security Council. I had an excellent meeting this morning with #China Vice Premier Liu He. It was an opportunity to hear his views on the expected “Phase 1” agreement with the U.S. We discussed the importance of a continued dialogue to achieve a strong global trading system. pic.twitter.com/Vu6T4CFYkm — Kristalina Georgieva (@KGeorgieva) January 14, 2020 “The normal practice is to negotiate all deal terms, conduct the legal review, translate the document, and then release the agreement at the time the deal is announced,” he said. “Trump has done everything in reverse. “In fact, he has announced this deal twice and we still do not know what’s in the agreement.” Underscoring that point, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, who has been vocal in his opposition to a limited trade deal that does not address subsidies and other issues expected to be hashed out in subsequent negotiation rounds, sent a letter to Trump this week, asking for more details. “From what I understand from reading press reports, the terms of the agreement will result in very little progress in reforming China’s rapacious trade behaviours and seems like it could send a signal to Chinese negotiators that the US can be steamrollered,” Schumer said in his letter, dated Monday. The Democratic lawmaker included a list of six questions in his letter, including: “What commitments, if any, address the Chinese government’s subsidy programmes that continue to harm US industry and workers?” and “What commitments, if any, has China made on substantive state-owned enterprise reform as part of the ‘phase one’ agreement?” We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements. They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country, NOW! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2020 In the final hours before the signing ceremony, Trump’s only mention of the trade talks was directed as an attack on Apple, which has benefited from the progress in the negotiations. In a Twitter post, Trump lashed out at the US tech company for resisting a request from Attorney General William Barr to give US law enforcement officials access to the encrypted iPhones used by a shooting suspect at a navy base in Pensacola, Florida, last month. “We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements,” he said. New tariffs of 15 per cent that were averted last month as the two sides closed in on the agreement to be signed in Washington on Wednesday had targeted Chinese-made consumer goods, including phones and computers. Additional reporting by Owen Churchill and Finbarr Bermingham Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. 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