TOKYO -- Negotiations between the U.S. and China on a first-phase trade agreement are apparently in the home stretch, although Washington and Beijing are describing the current situation of their talks differently. Signs are emerging that some kind of a limited deal could be struck by the end of the year.
With the U.S. presidential election looming a year down the road, President Donald Trump is keen to get a trade deal with China stitched up early so that he can tell American farmers, one of his key constituencies, that the Chinese will buy huge amounts of pork, soybeans and other agricultural products from them.
But the agreement on tariffs officials of the two countries are discussing, even if reached, will not bring an end to the trade war between the world's two largest economies since it will not settle any of the core issues at the heart of the current conflict.
The real bone of contention is China's unfair economic practices, including intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer and state subsidies to high-tech industries. Extracting concessions that satisfy the Trump administration from China is apparently a very long shot. The odds are that there may be no agreement on these issues by the time of the presidential election.
A senior official of a U.S. think tank who is regularly briefed by the Trump administration on its policies says top Trump aides including U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are losing hope of convincing Beijing to mend its ways. They are becoming convinced that no matter what kind of trade agreement the two governments may reach, China will not stop stealing intellectual property or rectifying its unfair policy practices to support domestic high-tech industries.
Lighthizer will tell Trump that it would be better to keep heavy tariffs on China without striking a quick but incomplete agreement than being deceived by Beijing, the think tank official says.
The U.S. bristles at China's government-led efforts to help domestic industries gain global technological leadership because Beijing makes no secret of its ambition to challenge American supremacy.
A growing number of officials within the U.S. administration and military are sounding the alarm about the prospect of China posing serious economic and military threats to the U.S. by gaining the upper hand in competition over such key technologies as artificial intelligence and next-generation digital infrastructure.
The Chinese administration of President Xi Jinping, for its part, has no intention to back down from its policy of providing generous financial and other support to domestic high-tech industries, which is driven by its own initiative to make China the world's most powerful nation by 2050.
The question is no longer whether or how the two countries will end their current conflict. It is how far and how fast they will go in their battle for global supremacy.
There are some signs that the Trump administration is recalibrating its basic strategy for dealing with China in line with its changing perceptions about Beijing's policy ambitions.
Until now, Washington has placed the top policy priority on efforts to boost U.S. competitiveness in vital technological, military and economic areas, in order to prevail a long term strategic competition with China.
This strategy of the Trump administration has been typically reflected in such moves as banning Huawei Technologies and other Chinese companies from vital technological infrastructure, and massive spending on the development of new U.S. military technologies.
The Trump administration has taken this strategy one step further and put Huawei and some other Chinese tech companies on the so-called Entity List, citing security concerns, in a step that could deny the companies access to microchips, software and other American-provided technology they need to make and sell their products.
But some Trump administration officials and U.S. lawmakers are now quietly discussing the need to put more pressure on China also over political issues in order to undermine the Communist Party's grip on power.
However, any move to weaken the Communist Party regime, which could be called a regime change approach, would be a dramatic and dangerous escalation of the conflict with China, expanding the war front into areas fraught with risks.
As of now, only a very small group of hard-liners within the U.S. government is advocating this risky strategy shift, according to an administration insider. The idea has never been officially discussed within the Trump administration.
But there have been more actions from the Trump administration that contains elements of this approach.
The U.S. government and Congress, for instance, are ratcheting up their rhetoric in criticizing China over the current unrest in Hong Kong. On Oct. 15, the U.S. House unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy bill to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, which would enable the U.S. government to impose sanctions on China in relation to the situation in the former British colony.
In early October, the Trump administration blacklisted more than two dozen Chinese organizations for their apparent involvement in abuses against ethnic Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and other top administration officials are raising the tone of their criticism of Beijing over the issue.
These measures border on attempts to weaken the Communist Party rule, whether that is really the aim of the U.S. government and Congress or not. They will inevitably fuel anti-government movements in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, thereby delivering a blow to the Community Party government.
If the U.S. does escalate its current economic conflict with China into a war against the Chinese communist regime, the magnitude of the global ramifications would be far larger and more serious. There was a similar turning point during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Listen to Edward Luttwak, a reputed U.S. political scientist known for his works on grand strategy.
"During the Cold War, the U.S. pursued a defensive 'Containment' strategy until 1980. However, when the Reagan administration took office in 1981, it switched its strategy from containment to a de facto regime change strategy. It was based on the premise that, after all, the Soviet regime would not evolve to become a benign power. The present U.S. and China competition has entered a similar phase."
"Of course, Reagan did not attack the Soviet Union but it did refuse 'coexistence' which everybody had thought was compulsory, just as with the PRC (People's Republic of China) regime now," Luttwak adds.
It is, however, hard to imagine the U.S. now following the Reagan administration's footsteps and pursuing a regime change strategy at once. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is the world's second-largest economy. Any serious turmoil within China would cause immeasurable economic and other effects on the world, says a U.S. government source.
But the risk remains that the current conflict, through an accelerating cycle of mutual reprisals, could grow into an all-out battle for hegemony, if not a hot war.
If the U.S. and China get embroiled in a full-fledged cold war, the consequences for the world economy would be dire. Tensions in the Asia-Pacific region would also rise to dangerous levels.
It is too early to predict whether this is the course the U.S.-China trade war will take. But there seems to be little room for optimism about the future of the relationship between the world's reigning superpower and its increasingly powerful challenger.