It’s not the right time to talk to China about trade war, Trump says, as he focuses on Nafta renegotiation

US president’s remarks made amid negotiations with Mexico over replacement for Nafta, the three-nation pact which also includes Canada

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 3:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 10:06pm

US President Donald Trump said on Monday that now was “not the right time to talk” to China about the two nations’ trade war, just days after negotiations between them failed to lead to any substantive progress.

“They want to talk,” Trump said, speaking of Chinese officials. “It’s just not the right time to talk right now, to be honest with China.”

What is Nafta? More on the revised trade agreement

“It’s too one-sided for too many years and too many decades, and so it’s not the right time to talk,” he said. “But eventually I’m sure that we’ll be able to work out a deal with China.”

The president’s remarks came in the Oval Office during a joint announcement via speakerphone with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto about a new trade deal brokered between their two countries in place of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), the three-nation pact which also includes Canada.

Last week a Chinese delegation, led by vice-minister of commerce Wang Shouwen, visited Washington for low-level talks hosted by the US Treasury’s under secretary of international affairs David Malpass.

Any hope that those discussions, held on Wednesday and Thursday, might produce meaningful outcomes was effectively thrown out of the window earlier in the week. Trump said he did not “anticipate much” from the meeting, and that he had “no time frame” for ending the trade war with China.

Even before Trump’s comments, observers and politicians had already expressed doubt that the talks would do much to break the impasse between Washington and Beijing.

Trump’s awkward phone call with Mexico’s president

Negotiations involving much more senior officials in May and June failed to bring about any form of resolution. Since then, both countries have instituted punitive tariffs against each other, with the latest round, enacted on Thursday, affecting US$16 billion of imports in both directions.

Trump’s comments on Monday appeared to contradict what senior administration officials have been repeating for weeks regarding the US government’s openness to further negotiations with China, a sentiment that has been publicly reciprocated by Beijing.

Watch: Chinese meat importers look elsewhere amid US-China trade war

Following the conclusion of last week’s fruitless talks, White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters told reporters that US and Chinese representatives “exchanged views on how to achieve fairness, balance, and reciprocity in the economic relationship”.

Latest US-China trade talks end not with a bang but a whimper

A statement from China’s Commerce Ministry was equally sparing on details, saying that the two sides had “constructive and frank exchanges”, and would “keep in touch about next steps”.

With an administration so focused on trade relations closer to home, and a president reluctant to reopen substantive talks, it seems that those steps could be some distance away.