Reaction in China to the US trade deal has been muted, with state media playing down news of the agreement signed in Washington and adopting a conciliatory tone.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump and the Chinese vice-premier, Liu He, signed an initial pact that hits pause on more than two years of escalating trade tensions. China pledged to buy more US products while the US called off additional tariffs on Chinese goods, among other measures agreed between the two sides.
While the US president hailed the pact as “the biggest deal anybody has ever seen,” Chinese officials and state media described it in much more cautious terms.
President Xi Jinping described the new agreement as a sign that the US and China can resolve their differences with dialogue, stating in a message delivered by Liu that the two countries had “made progress” and should “properly address each others’ concerns” to push bilateral ties on the “right track”.
The comments are in sharp contrast with Beijing’s previous determination to “fight to the end” to defend its interests in the trade war.
The often nationalistic state-run tabloid Global Times, whose stance on the trade stand-off have often been the most aggressive, said in an editorial: “The first phase of the agreement … certainly leaves both sides with regret and unhappiness, which is exactly the response that a fair agreement will elicit. Arguing who lost and who won is superficial.”
On Thursday, Chinese media ran state reports that echoed Xi’s comments, with state broadcaster CCTV characterising the deal as “boosting people’s confidence” that issues between China and the US can finally be settled.
“On the whole, the United States won a small victory,” said economist Shen Hong of the independent thinktank Beijing Tianze Economic Research Institute. “If the trade war continued it would definitely be more unfavourable for China.
“This is better for China. It means the Chinese government finally realises that such compromises are good for China.”
As part of the deal Beijing has promised to increase purchases of US products and services by an additional $200bn over the next two years. While the pact halts new tariffs, it leaves in place the bulk of levies on $360bn worth of Chinese products. Retaliatory Chinese tariffs on over $100bn in US goods also remain unchanged.
Observers say that China’s muted response does not mean Beijing sees itself as having capitulated. Emphasising the idea of “mutual benefit” and “win-win” cooperation is a common trope in Chinese diplomatic language, often employed when talking about the Belt and Road Initiative.
“However its relatively muted reaction does indicate it is concerned about how [the deal] will be received domestically,” said Yun Jiang, co-editor of China Neican, a newsletter analysing Chinese policy, and a former official with Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
“The biggest things is to not appear to be capitulating to the US. This is a possibility because the government has spent a lot of effort to drum up nationalistic sentiments.”
Observers have pointed out that the deal left out several of the thornier issues that have formed the basis of US-China trade frictions, from industrial subsidies for Chinese companies, forced technology transfers and stricter enforcement mechanisms.
China’s pledge to buy more US goods also came with a key caveat. Liu said Chinese purchases of $40bn worth of US farm goods a year over the next two years would be “based on market conditions”.
The US appeared optimistic about further talks, with the vice-president, Mike Pence, telling Fox Business Network that talks for a second-phase deal had begun.
Chinese state media cautioned that these negotiations could prove even more difficult. The broadcaster CCTV said: “The more problems are resolved, the more intense the game becomes.”
Additional reporting by Lillian Yang