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After Trump meeting, no mention in China of 90-day deadline or trade concessions

Analysts wonder whether President Trump and President Xi left their meeting with very different ideas about their agreement.

(From left) Donald Tusk, president of the European Council; Xi Jinping, China's president; and Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, at the G-20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires on Friday.
(From left) Donald Tusk, president of the European Council; Xi Jinping, China's president; and Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, at the G-20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires on Friday.Read moreErica Canepa / Bloomberg (custom credit) / Bloomberg

BEIJING — China seems to have a markedly different view of the trade war cease-fire reached with the Trump administration over the weekend, with state media making no mention Monday of the 90-day time frame or the reduction in tariffs on imported American cars or indeed any specifics about buying more American products.

That raises the prospect that the two sides have come away from their meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Buenos Aires, Argentina, with very different ideas about what comes next.

"Do we have another Singapore summit, where the North Korean delegation went home with a very different set of perspectives?" asked Paul Haenle, a former Asia adviser to former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, now running the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. He was referring to the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which seemed to produce different definitions of the word "denuclearization."

In the absence of a joint statement or a joint news conference after their meeting, each side has been putting their own spin on the summit and its outcome.

Trump portrayed the agreement as a second chance for Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying he would give the Chinese leader 90 days to deal with the structural issues in the trading relationship — like forced technology transfer and industrial espionage. If no deal is reached in that time frame, the American president said he would go ahead with his previous plan to raise tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese products from 10 to 25 percent, which had been due to kick in on Jan. 1.

Trump had been threatening to increase the existing tariffs and also to impose new tariffs on the remaining $267 billion worth of goods that China sells to the United States each year.

Trump tweeted late Sunday night about a deal.

But there was no mention of any of this here on Monday.

The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, ran a photo of Trump and Xi shaking hands and smiling at the top of Monday's front page. But the story, while stressing agreement and cooperation, had nothing about buying "very substantial" amounts of agricultural, industrial goods and energy products, as the White House said, and nothing about the 90 day deadline. Nor was there anything about tariffs on car imports into China.

Nor did news bulletins on CCTV, the state broadcaster, include any mention of buying more American goods or coming to an agreement within 90 days. Only the nationalist Global Times tabloid mentioned the time frame, and then the attributed it to the White House alone.

Neither was there any sign of the White House contention that Xi had promised to reconsider Qualcomm's bid to buy NXP Semiconductors, a Dutch rival. The $44 billion deal collapsed after Qualcomm, the American smartphone-chip maker, failed to get Chinese regulatory approval.

What Chinese state media did say, however, was that the two sides would work to "gradually" to decrease the trade imbalance — a statement that appears to be at odds with the rapid progress that Trump wants.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did little to clear up the discrepancies on Monday, saying that the two sides' readouts from the meetings spoke for themselves.

"I only want to stress that the two leaders reached important consensus and the teams on the two parts will follow through on the consensus," he said at a press briefing. The two sides would "speed up" their talks and "attempt to conclude a mutually beneficial agreement at an early date."

Asked specifically about the 90-day deadline, the spokesman demurred. "I think you should focus on that we discussed and agreed," he told reporters. "We agreed to hold off on imposing new tariffs. This agreement is quite significant since it has stopped our trade dispute from escalating and also opens up new prospects for win-win cooperation."

Chances are that both sides are "cherry picking" the details that suit them, said Zhao Hai, an economics specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

While Trump has come under fire from industries that are suffering from the Chinese tariffs, like soy beans and pork, so too is Xi navigating sensitive economic terrain at home. The Chinese economy was already slowing before the trade war erupted.

Stock markets, at least, seemed relieved at the truce, however temporary. China's benchmark Shanghai composite index closed up 2.57 percent Monday.

"This is hopefully a turning point for both sides to stop and rethink the direction they were heading in," Zhao said. But the "downside" was the 90-day time frame set by Trump. "The U.S. needs to lower its expectations," he said.

Indeed, other analysts said that the delay in tariffs appeared to be win for China.

"The Chinese are always playing for time and any pause that involves more talking is a victory for Beijing, as it only adds to the chances they have for a shift to a more favorable US domestic political environment," wrote Bill Bishop, publisher of the influential Sinocism newsletter.

"As we have learned with the waning 'maximum pressure' campaign on North Korea, once you step back from the brink it is difficult to marshal the support to return to it if the talks do not bear fruit," Bishop said.

The real question now is whether the world's two biggest economies can make progress on substantive matters in the next three months. Just having China buy more American goods and shrinking the trade deficit will not solve the broader structural problems in their economic relationship.

"Is China going to make the changes that the international community desperately hopes that China makes, so that foreign companies can complete on a level playing field?" asked Haenle of Carnegie-Tsinghua.

These changes include allowing greater access to the Chinese market and stopping foreign companies from having to hand over their technological secrets as a condition for operating in China.

Mei Xinyu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, doubted that the truce would lead to a solution to the long-term trade problems.

"The two sides seem to have a very different understanding of the priorities when it comes to handling the structural problems," Mei said. "The United States think it's all about unfair trade practices while China believes it's about low national savings. It's one problem with two interpretations."

Given that, Mei was not optimistic about what would come after the 90-day truce. "I think we should be prepared for the protracted war," he said. "Personally, I'm preparing for the U.S. to impose tariffs on all Chinese exports."

The Washington Post’s Luna Lin and Yang Liu contributed reporting.