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US Lawmakers Seek Details of Trump's Trade Breakthrough With China

President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping lead their respective delegatiosn during their bilateral meeting at the G-20 Summit, Dec. 1, 2018, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Conflicting White House messaging about a reported breakthrough on U.S.-Chinese trade disputes, coupled with relative silence from Beijing, left many American lawmakers unsure where, precisely, trade matters stand between the two economic giants.

For days, President Donald Trump has hailed agreements he says he reached with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the G-20 summit in Argentina, from a 90-day deferment of additional tariffs on each other's exports to a Chinese commitment to purchase U.S. agricultural products to a reduction of China's duties on American automobiles.

"I think it's a good step," North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis told VOA on Tuesday. "Now, what we need to see is formal acknowledgment. It'll be interesting to see if that's backed up by actions on the part of China."

Chinese officials have confirmed no details of a trade breakthrough and withheld public comment so far.

Meanwhile, Trump's top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, has clarified that there was an "assumption" China would eliminate auto tariffs, not a specific agreement. On Tuesday, both he and Trump suggested that the groundwork has been laid for a grand trade accord between Washington and Beijing, but that such a deal has yet to be reached.

"But if a fair deal is able to be made with China, one that does all of the many things we know must be finally done, I will happily sign. Let the negotiations begin," the president tweeted.

"This was a huge first step," Kudlow said. "I think we're going to make great progress."

On Capitol Hill, senators searching for concrete answers appeared perplexed.

"Obviously, we would want a pause [in tariff hikes], but it's not clear at this point," Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow said. "So, like much of what the president does, you have to wait and see."

"What did they [Trump and Xi] really agree to?" Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine asked. "We have not had the administration come brief us: 'Here's what we're doing. Here's what we're trying to accomplish.'"

Kaine added, "What we don't see yet from the administration is a plan. The whole trade war thing has had an ad hoc feel to it."

Senators from farming states welcomed the prospect of a major Chinese purchase of America's agricultural output. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley told VOA many of his constituents would benefit.

"Soy bean farmers, for sure. Maybe corn, agriculture generally, because I heard that they [the Chinese] are immediately going to start buying agricultural products," he said. "I think it's good news from the standpoint that it seems like there is serious talk [between the U.S. and China]."

Asked whether Trump deserves credit for tackling thorny trade issues, Grassley nodded.

"Oh, heaven's yes! The United States for 70 years had taken the view that we could have very liberal trade [practices] with other countries because they had to build up their economies," the Iowa senator said. "Now, China's economy is suffering as a result of what Trump is doing. So, from the standpoint that they need stimulus for their economy, maybe they realize that they've made some mistakes on trade and how they've treated the United States."

Virginia Democrat Mark Warner said Trump has deployed a faulty strategy in pursuit of legitimate goals. He said "there's a growing recognition that China is playing an unfair game in terms of theft of intellectual property, in terms of forcing American companies to give up source codes in order to get into the Chinese market."

"There was a real opportunity to create a broad-based international coalition against China's unfair practices," he added, "but that opportunity was blown when, instead of zeroing in on China, this White House started calling Canada, Mexico, our European allies national security threats. So, I see no grand strategy here other than a one-off picking of fights."

No so, according to the economic adviser. "There was real chemistry between the two leaders [Trump and Xi], real chemistry," Kudlow said. "And as President Trump's tweets indicate, only they can get this done. I think that's correct."

Much work remains to be done, according to senators of both political parties.

"We've got a lot of things we need to work on in terms of intellectual property, technology transfer, barriers to agriculture," Tillis said.

For now, while some lawmakers express cautious optimism, others voiced skepticism.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Donald Trump, as is his style, was simply making things up [about a U.S.-China trade deal] to try to get a single day of good press stories," Warner said.