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This is the second working day since the United States and China reached what the Trump administration is calling a “Phase One” trade deal with Beijing last Friday, and the questions surrounding the agreement still far outweigh what’s known. That alone should tell you that towering obstacles continue blocking any confident assessment of where the President’s so-called trade war stands, much less where the conflict is likely to go. Even so, here are some observations I hope are useful.  (Teaser:  One major point concerns tonight’s Democratic presidential candidates debate.)

First, the absence of any written statements or documents from the U.S. side describing or even summarizing what’s actually in the agreement justifies big doubts that anything deserving the term “deal” has been reached at all. Further reinforcing legitimate skepticism is China’s long record of broken promises on trade.

Second, especially strong skepticism is warranted about U.S. claims that any meaningful progress has been made on the so-called structural issues focused on from the very beginning by the Trump administration. For it as I’ve long argued, China’s government is so vast and secretive, and leaves such scanty written records of key decisions, that it will simply be impossible for the United States to monitor and enforce even the most promising Chinese commitments on intellectual property theft, technology extortion, discriminatory Chinese government procurement, and Beijing subsidies that shaft U.S.-owned and other foreign businesses vis-a-vis their Chinese rivals.

Third, even if China currently means to keep its alleged promises to binge buy American agricultural products, any number of external events could upset the apple cart. They include the Hong Kong picture becoming uglier (its becoming prettier can’t be totally ruled out, but seems highly unlikely); new Chinese crackdowns on other protests that may emerge (especially among the Uighur Muslim population) or revelations of new Chinese atrocities against the Uighurs or other minorities or other protesters; more attempted Chinese bullying of high-profile U.S. businesses like the National Basketball Association; a major flare-up of tensions over Taiwan or China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea; a step forward in the Huawei case that increases the chances that the CFO daughter of the founder of this Chinese telecommunications giant will be extradited to the United States from Canada for sanctions-busting; and Chinese moves that persuade Washington that Beijing has no intention of keeping its perceived agriculture or other promises.

Moreover, the longer China takes to ramp up its buys from American farmers, the greater the potential for these kinds of shocks to bring this “Phase One” agreement crashing down.

Fourth, the less impressive the “mini-deal” keeps looking, the more convincing my view that its apparent modesty reflects President Trump’s belief that his domestic political position has weakened significantly – both because of the new impeachment threat and signs of an economic slowdown.

It’s true that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has suggested that if the deal hasn’t been finalized by December 15, the Trump administration will go ahead with a previously vowed 15 percent increase on $156 billion worth of levies on Chinese imports. But that’s anything but a concrete threat. In addition, it’s important to note this report suggesting (the specifics are really sloppily described) that China wants the sequencing to work in the opposite way:  First, tariffs get rolled back (or frozen in place?), then the agriculture buys begin. 

Moreover, no one in the administration has said anything about reversing its Phase One-related decision to suspend a big tariff increase (to up to a formidable 30 percent on some products) previously announced to begin on October 15. So even though U.S. duties on some $360 billion worth of Chinese goods would still remain in place if China blows Mr. Trump off, there’s a real chance that Beijing won’t incur any further punishment – doubtless because the President believes that tariffs above and beyond current levels and coverage could panic investors again and further soften economic growth.

Some kind of blow-up in Hong Kong or elsewhere could yet change Mr. Trump’s calculations. But the more important point so far is that events, not the President, are now in charge of the trade talks track of his China policy.

Fifth, at the same time, none of the above means that the United States is devoid of leverage versus China and in particular the kind of clout that can keep advancing its economic as well as closely related technology and national security interests, and this is where a second, arguably more important, track of the Trump China policies needs to be remembered. As I’ve written, the President has sought not only to end the threat of China’s economic predation by forcing Chinese policy changes through tariff pressure. Although he rarely speaks of it, he’s also been trying to repel Chinese threats to U.S. security and prosperity through a series of unilateral measures aimed at decoupling the United States from China economically.

By crimping trade, investment, and technology flows, these decoupling steps are reducing America’s vulnerability to China by significantly reducing the access to the U.S. market so crucial to the success of China’s advanced industries; by shrinking the footprint of China’s state-controlled economy in America’s largely free market system; and by cutting off a Chinese tech sector that could be become highly dangerous from critical supplies of U.S. components.

Decoupling has also been advanced by those tariffs so far imposed on $360 billion worth of Chinese products (amounting to nearly 86 percent of all goods imports from China last year). They haven’t done much to achieve their stated aim of improving China’s behavior, but they have decreased China’s importance to the U.S. economy by prompting an exodus of global manufacturing supply chains out of the People’s Republic.

Further, the Trump decoupling campaign has also helped awaken many foreign governments to the China tech and broader economic threat – though because so many other countries (including major American treaty allies), were profiting so handsomely from the pre-Trump globalization status quo, progress on this front has been uneven and disappointing. (See here for why Germany, for example is so conflicted.) 

Sixth and finally, one major set of actors in this drama, though, hasn’t been very woke on China issues:  most of the Democratic presidential candidates. Sure, many have supported a policy of “doing something” on China (though rarely involving tariffs – or any other concrete measures). But so far, none seems to view China’s multi-dimensional challenge to America as a major concern – and all the top-tier contenders and most others now support impeaching the President. 

Consequently, they could greatly strengthen not only Mr. Trump’s position, but the American position, with firm declarations in tonight’s debate that China will stay squarely in Washington’s cross-hairs if they win the White House, and that therefore there’s no point in stonewalling in hopes of easier post-2020 U.S. policies. Not that any confidence looks well founded that any of them will.