US-China trade war truce: 2 reasons why it’s unlikely to last

Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping have agreed to a ceasefire in their increasingly painful trade war, yet their governments’ differing depictions of the deal show just how far apart they really are.

While the Trump administration emphasized trade issues such as a 90-day moratorium on raising tariffs and Xi’s concession to buy “very substantial” amounts of U.S. goods, China focused on diplomacy, regional issues and an agreement to try to quickly resolve their differences.

That’s because for China, Trump’s trade war has never been only – or even mainly – about trade.

As a political scientist following the escalating tensions, I believe that the statements coming out of the G-20 meeting reveal that a wide gap still separates Xi and Trump, both in terms of what matters most to them and their approach to getting it.

Territory trumps trade

One of China’s major concerns is U.S. interference in areas it considers “internal” matters.

A major flashpoint is Taiwan. Earlier this year, for example, Trump approved a US$330 million arms deal with Taiwan, following up on a previous deal of $1.3 billion.

These sales irk China because they directly conflict with Beijing’s long-standing policy that there is only one Chinese government, and Taiwan is merely a breakaway province that will inevitably be reunited with the mainland.

Another sticking point is the South China Sea, where the Chinese government has been increasingly aggressive in asserting territorial claims at odds with its neighbors. In the past, the U.S. has acted as a counterweight to China’s claims, Now inconsistency in Trump’s stance has added to tensions in the region.

Both of these issues have implications for the trade war. China is willing to absorb economic losses in exchange for standing firm on issues vital to the national interest.