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"He wants them to suffer more": Inside Trump's China bet

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

President Trump has no intention of easing his tariffs on China, according to three sources with knowledge of his private conversations. Instead, these sources say he wants Chinese leaders to feel more pain from his tariffs — which he believes need more time to fully kick in.

What we're hearing: "He wants them to suffer more" from tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods, said a source with direct knowledge of Trump's thinking, and the president believes the longer his tariffs last, the more leverage he'll have.

Why this matters: Trump's trade war with China is at the "beginning of the beginning," according to a source familiar with Trump's conversations. And his team doesn't expect much from the tentatively planned meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires next month.

  • The Trump economic team has done no substantive planning so far for the bilateral meeting's agenda, largely because the purpose of the meeting is for Trump and Xi to reconnect, eyeball each other, and feel each other out amid their escalating trade war.

"It's a heads of state meeting, not a trade meeting," a source with direct knowledge told Axios.

Between the lines: "Trump is thinking about this meeting as a personal reconnection with President Xi, not a meeting that's going to evolve into detailed discussions," said a source familiar with Trump's thinking. "The sides are very far apart. ... Right now, there's not the common basis for proceeding."

  • Trump isn't focused on the details of a potential China deal. He's focused on creating more leverage, according to another source who recently discussed the U.S.-China standoff with the president.

Behind the scenes: Trump has privately boasted that his China tariffs have driven down the country’s stock market. Experts say the trade war has hurt market sentiment, but the stock market has never been a reliable barometer of Chinese economic strength.

  • The generic point Trump makes to aides, per a source with direct knowledge: "'We are strong and they are weak.' ... He believes more pressure will bring them to the table to make a deal."

Treasury officials have had contact with key Chinese negotiator Liu He's camp to exchange information. There’s been nothing close to real negotiation, according to sources briefed on them. "There is some contact with mid-level Chinese, but not much. ... I wouldn't overestimate the planning process," a U.S. official with direct knowledge told me.

  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's team has told the Chinese there's no point in them floating plans to buy U.S. products as the key priorities — structural issues like IP theft and market access — must be addressed.
  • Treasury officials have told the Chinese that the list of U.S. requirements hasn't changed from the summer, according to sources briefed on their conversations.

The bottom line: All signs suggest the trade war between the U.S. and China is just getting started. I've asked sources close to Trump whether he's ever expressed any private concerns over whether his tariffs could backfire due to Chinese retaliation against American consumers or companies. Nobody I've spoken to has heard Trump express anything along these lines. He's all in.

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