President Trump had dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday. On Sunday he tweeted this:
China has agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S. Currently the tariff is 40%.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2018
Oddly, the Chinese didn’t confirm this. Instead we got headlines like this one from the New York Times:
Hmmm. This is kind of odd, since Trump doesn’t really have much to gain from misrepresenting his agreeement with Xi. But then it got worse as the headlines morphed into weirder ones, like this one from the Los Angeles Times:
One of the things that makes this whole affair peculiar is that auto tariffs hardly matter. Most cars for the Chinese market are made in China. They aren’t made in America and then shipped over. Still, even if the whole thing is a nothingburger, you’d expect Trump and his gang to at least know what they agreed to. But no:
On Sunday night, after returning to the White House from the Group of 20 economic summit in Argentina, Trump declared on Twitter that China “has agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S.”….But Trump’s top economic advisors made clear Monday that no agreement to reduce and remove the tariffs yet existed, despite Trump’s boast.
“We don’t yet have a specific agreement on that, but I will just tell you … we expect those tariffs to go to zero,” Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic advisor, told reporters in a conference call from the White House….Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin gave mixed messages, appearing to confirm the auto tariff cut but then backing off….White House trade advisor Peter Navarro also wouldn’t confirm China was lifting auto tariffs.
Beyond this, it turns out that the White House didn’t even have any idea what level the Chinese might reduce their tariffs to. Auto tariffs used to be 25 percent, but earlier this year China reduced them to 15 percent—except for us. After Trump announced his tariffs this summer, the Chinese raised tariffs on American cars to 40 percent, while leaving everyone else at 15 percent. Assuming that there’s any deal in place at all, this probably means that China has only promised to reduce auto tariffs on American cars to 15 percent, which it was planning to do all along until Trump started his trade war.
And what about soybeans? Apparently China agreed to buy a “substantial” amount of American food and energy products. But once again, this is something China had already agreed to do before Trump announced his tariffs.
So is China giving us anything in return for the 90-day tariff truce that both countries agreed to? Hard to say. I guess they’re getting a 90-day tariff truce—although there was even some confusion about when the truce started. Beyond that, who knows?