President Donald Trump's team is running out of time to rewrite a trade pact with Canada and Mexico this year just as it's confronting China and sparring with its allies over US tariffs on imported steel and aluminium.
If negotiators can't agree on a revamped the North American Free Trade Agreement soon House Speaker Paul Ryan set an informal Thursday deadline the talks could drag into 2019. Or Trump could carry out his threat to abandon the agreement he's labelled a job-killing "disaster" and throw commerce among the three NAFTA countries into disarray.
NAFTA is hardly the only urgent item on the administration's trade agenda. Trump was expected to meet today with China's Vice Premier Liu He to try to avert a trade war. Liu will also meet with a US team led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The US and China, locked in a conflict over Beijing's demand that American companies turn over technology to gain access to the Chinese market, have threatened to slap tariffs on USD 50 billion of each other's goods. And Trump has asked US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to find an additional USD 100 billion in Chinese products to tax.
The prospect of a trade war between the world's two biggest economies has unnerved global financial markets and alarmed major companies.
"The stakes are too high for these talks to fail," said Christine McDaniel, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center. "The US economy, its firms, its workers, and its people all depend on being able to buy and sell with their counterparts at home and across the globe every day."
Talking to reporters today, Trump downplayed the prospect of a successful negotiation with Beijing: "Will that be successful?," the president asked. "I tend to doubt it." Trade sanctions could disrupt business between the countries and potentially threaten jobs. Consumers would be hurt by higher prices for imported products that are hit by tariffs.
In the meantime, Japan, a staunch US ally, is threatening to go to the World Trade Organisation to protest Trump's tariffs on imported steel and aluminium. The president imposed the tariffs in March, arguing that reliance on imported metals posed a threat to America's national security. He exempted the European Union, Canada, and Mexico but not Japan until June 1.