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What Do Recent Deals Tell Us About Trump's Trade Philosophy?


Does a trade deal with China begin to address the big questions in the world's most important international relationship? Wendy Cutler is with us next. She is a former U.S. trade negotiator now at the Asia Society, and she was in China when the Trump administration announced a partial deal. The U.S. dropped some scheduled tariffs while China will buy a bunch of U.S. goods.

Ms. Cutler, welcome back to the program.

WENDY CUTLER: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So we've talked before. You've agreed, as someone who's served Republican and Democratic administrations, that the U.S. has a problem with China. Is there some kind of pathway in this agreement that leads toward a solution to that problem?

CUTLER: Well, absolutely. This phase one deal that was announced earlier this week does address a number of problems that we have experienced with China over the years. But it doesn't fully address these issues. And the administration has made that clear by already announcing that there will be a phase two negotiation.

INSKEEP: There's some reference in this agreement to forced technology transfers. The United States says that's going to stop. China, I guess, denied it ever happened. I mean, what's in there that would actually stop companies from giving technology to China when they do business in China?

CUTLER: Well, I haven't seen the 86-page text yet, but from what I understand, there will be language where China will say, we will no longer force the transfer of technology through joint ventures, through licensing and other practices. But even the administration has admitted that this language doesn't go far enough. And in a phase two negotiation, they'll need to put more meat on the bones with respect to that language.

INSKEEP: What were you hearing from your Chinese counterparts when you were visiting there the other day?

CUTLER: Well, I was in China when the news broke, and I have to say the Chinese that I met with were very cautious and very wary. And I think this reflects kind of a weariness with the ups and downs in this negotiation. Remember, deals have been announced only to later be withdrawn. And so I think the Chinese were a little skeptical that this deal is going to stick or that what the U.S. thinks they got from this deal is in line with what China thinks that they've attained.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they may not actually agree on what the words on the page mean.

CUTLER: It could be the case. But I think when I was there, there was a concern that way fewer details were being offered by the U.S. side and a question mark of whether there was really a meeting of the minds. My sense since coming home is that the two sides have converged more in what they're saying about the deal.

INSKEEP: The president - the U.S. president's approach to trade is quite clear by now - work for bilateral deals rather than big multinational agreements and try to get those bilateral deals through pressure, through tariffs, wherever it seems fitting or appropriate. Does it seem to you that this is proving to be worthwhile?

CUTLER: Well, it's a hard slog when you choose just to do bilateral deals. And I think the administration is learning that. With respect to the USMCA, the new NAFTA deal...


CUTLER: ...It's taken them not only a year to negotiate but months and months to get congressional approval.

INSKEEP: And this is just a tweak of an old deal. I don't mean to minimize it. There are some changes that are significant. But it's the same deal in its - in essence, right?

CUTLER: Exactly. This is - this wasn't a new deal. This wasn't a new deal from scrap. This was a deal they were making just updates and changes to. And so if you do a deal with a lot of countries at the same time, you do save a lot of time and you also have a much bigger impact, and you don't have to go to Congress for individual votes.

INSKEEP: They're talking about an individual deal with the U.K. once it leaves the European Union. That could take years?

CUTLER: It could take years, even. But it - you know, at a minimum, even if it took months, it will still take months to get through Congress.

INSKEEP: Wendy Cutler, thanks so much for the time, really appreciate it.

CUTLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Wendy Cutler is at the Asia Society and is a former chief U.S. trade negotiator. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.