The U.S. and Chinese governments both sent signals ahead of their trade talks in Washington last week that a pact was so near they would discuss the logistics of a signing ceremony.
In a matter of days, the dynamic shifted so markedly that the Chinese deliberated whether to even show up after President Trump ordered a last-minute increase in tariffs on Chinese imports because the U.S. viewed China as reneging on previous commitments.
Inside the cloistered Zhongnanhai government compound in Beijing, President Xi Jinping and his close advisers discussed how to respond to the tariff increase, given the talks were just days away, according to Chinese officials with knowledge of the decision-making process.
After huddling Tuesday to analyze a press conference given by the U.S.’s two top negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Chinese officials concluded that they should travel to at least avoid a rift that could be difficult to repair.
The recommendation went to China’s chief negotiator, Liu He, and ultimately to Mr. Xi. He decided to send the team even though Beijing was fully aware that the trip held little prospect of progress, given how quickly problems had arisen. “The goal was simply to keep the talks going,” said one of the Chinese officials with knowledge of the matter.
By the end of the week, that was as much as both sides could cite for their efforts: the avoidance of a serious rupture that would doom any prospect of a future deal and a commitment to stay near the negotiating table.
So far, the trade talks have provided little evidence that the two nations have found a formula for how to negotiate successfully since Messrs. Trump and Xi met in Buenos Aires Dec. 1, which paved the way to Washington last week.
China didn’t immediately impose new strictures on U.S. businesses, as it has done when things weren’t going well in the past. Mr. Liu is expected to brief Mr. Xi on the discussions he had in Washington before Beijing decides on the next course of action, according to the officials familiar with the process.
.. Bridging the trade rift may ultimately depend on the personal chemistry between President Trump and President Xi and their willingness to push matters forward after months of negotiations that have been full of positive intentions but thwarted by miscalculations, accusations of backtracking and unfulfilled expectations.
“The more heated moments have been in situations where we thought we had something and suddenly there was some backsliding,” said one person involved in the discussions on the U.S. side.
“We’ve expressed some pretty serious frustration at times,” this person said. “It’s been a necessary ingredient to success. You can be nice to someone, but sometimes you need to say ‘stop screwing me.’ ”
.. “We were in the process of planning for a signing summit with President Trump and President Xi upon the completion of this agreement,” Mr. Mnuchin later told reporters. One of the issues was where to hold the celebratory moment: Washington or Mr. Trump’s golf estates in Mar-a-Lago, in Florida, or Bedminster, N.J., say Trump aides.
To the Chinese, this was a matter of honor: The U.S. should trust Beijing to make the changes they said they would make, even if that meant changing regulations rather than laws. Besides, the U.S. was being unfair in refusing, upon the signing of a deal, to remove tariffs that had been assessed in the yearlong fight, the Chinese believed.
“There is a real desire on our end to keep the tariffs on,” one White House official said. “That is a sticking point.”
Shortly after Mr. Trump’s announcement of the tariff increase, Beijing’s trade negotiators, who had booked Air China tickets to Washington, received an urgent order: Stay put until further notice. “Looks like we’re not going,” one of them said early Monday morning.
Up until that moment, China’s leadership had expected the trip to bring months of negotiations to a close, according to Chinese officials close to the negotiation process, given that Chinese diplomats were already in discussion with their American counterparts about a possible summit between Messrs. Xi and Trump to finalize a trade agreement.
Now, the pressing question for Beijing became: Should it pull out of the planned talks to adhere to its longstanding public position that China doesn’t negotiate under threat? Or should China bite the bullet and still send the delegation to avoid a complete collapse of negotiations?
The Chinese side wanted more information from Washington before making the decision. But senior officials knew news of Mr. Trump’s tweets would inevitably cause market anxiety. The first order of business Monday morning: China’s central bank sped up a plan to release more funds for banks, a stimulus measure aimed at calming jittery investors and businesses.
State-backed funds were also instructed to buy what was necessary to prevent a free fall of shares. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman released a statement at Monday’s regular press briefing that said only that the Chinese delegation was “preparing to travel to the U.S.” The spokesman didn’t say when the team would depart or give additional details.
On Tuesday morning, a group of officials at the vice minister level, including Liao Min, a trusted aide to Mr. Liu and a vice Finance Minister, and Wang Shouwen, a vice Commerce Minister, reached the conclusion the talks should proceed, a position endorsed by Mr. Xi though expectations of a positive result had fallen sharply.
The U.S. side made some calls that turned off the Chinese, too. By insisting that it wouldn’t remove any tariffs upon closing a deal, the U.S. gave Beijing little incentive to accept tough conditions. The U.S. position remained firm: no tariff removal until Beijing showed it would carry through on the commitments it made under the deal. On top of that, the U.S. wanted China to pledge not to retaliate if the U.S. were to reimpose tariffs if it found China in violation of some provisions.
Mr. Trump on Thursday let it be known he didn’t want the U.S. to appear soft on China, according to one person briefed on the matter.
The two days of negotiations went amicably nonetheless, according to people tracking the talks. Messrs Lighthizer and Mnuchin, who both were in the discussions, took Mr. Liu to a working dinner at the Metropolitan Club, a ritzy private club near the U.S. Trade Representative’s headquarters that is a Lighthizer favorite. Mr. Liu continued the talks on Friday despite the U.S. implementing the higher tariffs very early Friday morning.
Later that morning, Mr. Lighthizer greeted the Chinese envoy at the door of the USTR office—a gesture he rarely makes, but one which he could be sure would be captured by photographers and camera crews waiting outside.
By then, though, the U.S. team went into the talks not expecting to do a deal, figuring they would have a “non-meeting,” according to one person briefed on the discussions. U.S. officials at least wanted to make sure they didn’t leave with a complete break. The goal of the meeting was to be able to say the U.S. negotiators were still trying, this person said.
In an interview with Chinese media Friday, Mr. Liu disputed U.S. accounts that China reneged on commitments it had already made as part of the trade talks. “We are very clear that we cannot make concessions on matters of principle,” Mr. Liu said. “We hope our U.S. colleagues understand this.”