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China's Commerce Ministry released a statement Wednesday calling trade talks between Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump at the G-20 Summit in Argentina "very successful" — but empty of promises and vague on the 90-day deadline for negotiations touted by the Trump administration.
The statement said the Chinese and U.S. trade and economic delegations will "actively advance the work of consultation" in 90 days in accord with "a clear timetable" and "road map" without providing more information on the map or timetable.
A top China analyst called the statement an attempt by Beijing to "calm the waters," following a stock market drop in reaction to confusion about what really was agreed upon at the Trump-Xi meeting.
Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S. at the Wilson Center, says China's primary motive is to draw out consultations with the U.S. for as long as it can, and beyond 90 days if possible. "To do so, Beijing must keep the fish on the hook by giving the Trump administration reason to believe progress is within reach," Daly said, referring to Wednesday's statement.
Daly added that Tuesday's stock market losses threatened Trump's claim that an agreement could be reached and replaced it with a narrative about "Trump administration incompetence and Chinese intransigence."
Immediately following the Dec. 1 meeting in Argentina, the White House released a statement saying both sides considered the meeting "highly successful."
On trade, the White House statement said Trump will leave tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese products at the 10 percent rate, and not raise them to 25 percent on Jan. 1, 2019, as he had previously promised. The statement said China will purchase "a substantial amount" of agricultural, energy, industrial and other products from the U.S.
The White House said the two presidents agreed to immediately negotiate on technology transfer, intellectual property protection, nontariff barriers, and cyber intrusions and try to complete the negotiations within 90 days. "If at the end of this period of time, the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the 10 percent tariffs will be raised to 25 percent," the statement said.
Trump administration trade adviser Peter Navarro emphasized the 90-day time frame on the Fox Business Network on Tuesday. "All this stuff is supposed to happen within the 90-day period. We're not waiting for anything," Navarro said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was more cautious in his statements but still optimistic. "If we can get this negotiated and get a real agreement, I think this is the single biggest opportunity for U.S. business and U.S. workers," he told FBN.
Trump tweeted Tuesday that "unless extended, [talks] will end 90 days from the date of our wonderful and very warm dinner with President Xi in Argentina."
A senior adviser to the Trump administration cautioned that making such public statements about an agreement with the Chinese was dangerous and could jeopardize progress with the talks.
Daly said that China would prefer that the two governments issue no precise statements and negotiate in relative secrecy, undistracted by media analysis and public opinion. "China's approach did not yield the results Washington wanted during the Strategic Economic Dialogue set up under President George W. Bush or the Strategic and Economic Dialogue pursued under President Obama. Unpublicized negotiations also give the Beijing government maximum scope to characterize its actions to the Chinese people and the world in whatever way it likes," Daly said.
Experts said Trump has an opportunity to make gains if the negotiations are played right.
"China's development model involves acquiring foreign technology by hook or by crook, and warping competition at home while demanding open markets overseas. Either the president will accept the time and costs necessary to push the PRC away from some of these policies or he will follow Presidents Obama and Bush and back down," Derek Scissors, a resident scholar and economist at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in an analysis following the Dec.1 statement.
The White House did not immediately return requests for comment.
A spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment.