“NAFTA just needed a moderate update. China seems to reflect a more basic superpower tension. Not just tariffs, but also denial of access to Western technology,” he said. “They are probably too late, but it seems to reflect a growing recognition that the dream of China becoming more prosperous and also more democratic / better member of the international community was naïve. They cannot stop its rise, but maybe they can slow it down.”

Tony Nash, CEO and Founder of Complete Intelligence, disagreed, arguing that Lighthizer’s success in engineering trade deals with Mexico, Canada and South Korea “bodes well for the U.S.-China discussion.”

Nash added: “China is having a fair amount of difficulty in their domestic economy … so I continue to believe China will come to the table with some significant concessions (although they may be downplayed) this month.”

Finalizing a trilateral trade deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico may also help repair alliances damaged earlier this year by Washington’s justification of tariffs on national security grounds, experts said. Rebuilding a U.S.-led coalition of trading partners may serve to contain China.

“Assuming it (the USMCA) passes, it allows for focus to shift back to countering China and building a coalition to do so among developed economies, something that was massively deterred by the bitter negotiations with Canada,” said Ziemba.

Going forward, the U.S. approach will be “bluster, hard lines and debate, and eventual agreement when the costs of no deal become too high,” she said.

Ziemba predicted that there may eventually be a deal with Beijing, but it won’t “be easy or long-lasting” given the extent of complaints and the lack of overwhelming business and congressional support for a deal with China. “I think this argues against some grand bargain and suggests that there may be smaller deliverables,” she said.

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