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When US trade negotiators arrived in Beijing in May 2018 for their first round of talks with vice-premier Liu He, they presented him with a strongly worded list of demands outlining their objectives.
Chinese officials thought the tone of the complaint was insulting and would garner them sympathy at home and internationally, according to people involved in the discussions. So they leaked it to a Chinese journalist and it went viral. “We couldn’t believe how fast it got out,” one US official said.
The document remains the best benchmark with which to measure the two sides’ “phase one” trade agreement against Donald Trump’s original aspirations for the talks — and an indication of how far the deal is from the US president’s stated ambitions.
The document began by demanding a $200bn reduction in the US trade deficit by the end of this year, compared with 2018. According to the Office of the US Trade Representative, the US had a trade deficit with China of $378.2bn in 2018. Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, subsequently told US embassy staff in Beijing that deficit reduction would ultimately determine whether the negotiations had been a success, according to people briefed on his meetings in the Chinese capital.
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