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Photo Illustration: Axios visuals, Photo: Fred Dufor/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump's desire to help save ZTE could set the tone for the treatment of another Chinese telecom company that's under investigation for sanctions violations.

Why it matters: China could use Trump's apparent pivot on ZTE as a stepping stone to free Huawei, the other, bigger Chinese phone maker. Or the ZTE case could be a lesson for the U.S. in negotiating with China that taking the toughest possible approach to China might not be the smartest when the Asian power is stronger than ever and prepared to fight back.

Between the lines: "Ross had a color wheel of approaches [on ZTE] ranging from a handslap to breaking them as a company," says Chris Johnson, a former CIA China analyst who's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • The Chinese might have stomached a slap on the wrist, but by banning American companies from selling parts to ZTE, Ross served up a punishment harsh enough to halt operations. China in turn made ZTE a top trade priority and used its massive leverage to potentially sway the president.

The backdrop...

  • ZTE has been found guilty of breaking U.S. law three times, including violating sanctions by selling equipment with American parts to Iran and North Korea.
  • The Pentagon has banned the sale of ZTE and Huawei phones at retail stores on military bases, citing concerns that the companies are using their devices to spy on military personnel.
  • ZTE and Huawei are both key players in China's race to dominate 5G and the future of mobile communication. The Chinese Communist Party is painting U.S. moves against the Chinese phone makers as efforts to knock China out of the 5G race.

The deal...

  • "The U.S. and China are closing in on a deal that would give China’s ZTE Corp. a reprieve from potentially crippling U.S. sanctions in exchange for Beijing removing tariffs on billions of dollars of U.S. agricultural products, said people in both countries briefed on the deal," the Wall Street Journal's Lingling Wei and Bob Davis report.
  • Steven Mnuchin is leading the U.S. in negotiating a deal that puts the brakes on actions against ZTE in exchange for China buying down its trade surplus, reports Axios' Jonathan Swan.
  • China's trade negotiator, Liu He, is in DC today. Axios contributor Bill Bishop hears that Liu will arrive "with an open checkbook to buy down the deficit but that progress on anything structural will be much harder,” per his Sinocism newsletter.

Go deeper: Trump's grand bargain on China... What Larry Kudlow told Axios earlier today.

Go deeper

5 hours ago - World

Top general: U.S. losing time to deter China

Stanley McChrystal. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Stanley McChrystal, a top retired general and Biden adviser, tells Axios that "China's military capacity has risen much faster than people appreciate," and the U.S. is running out of time to counterbalance that in Asia and prevent a scenario such as it seizing Taiwan.

Why it matters: McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently briefed the president-elect as part of his cabinet of diplomatic and national security advisers. President-elect Joe Biden is considering which Trump- or Obama-era approaches to keep or discard, and what new strategies to pursue.

Progressives shift focus from Biden's Cabinet to his policy agenda

Joe Biden giving remarks in Wilmington, Del., last month. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Some progressives tell Axios they believe the window for influencing President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet selections has closed, and they’re shifting focus to policy — hoping to shape Biden's agenda even before he’s sworn in.

Why it matters: The left wing of the party often draws attention for its protests, petitions and tweets, but this deliberate move reflects a determination to move beyond some fights they won't win to engage with Biden strategically, and over the long term.

Dave Lawler, author of World
7 hours ago - World

Venezuela's predictable elections herald an uncertain future

The watchful eyes of Hugo Chávez on an election poster in Caracas. Photo: Cristian Hernandez/AFP via Getty

Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday, Nicolás Maduro will complete his takeover of the last opposition-held body, and much of the world will refuse to recognize the results.

The big picture: The U.S. and dozens of other countries have backed an opposition boycott of the National Assembly elections on the grounds that — given Maduro's tactics (like tying jobs and welfare benefits to voting), track record, and control of the National Electoral Council — they will be neither free nor fair.