WASHINGTON — President Trump signed an initial trade deal with China on Wednesday, bringing the first chapter of a protracted and economically damaging fight with one of the world’s largest economies to a close.
The pact is intended to open Chinese markets to more American companies, increase farm and energy exports and provide greater protection for American technology and trade secrets. China has committed to purchasing an additional $200 billion worth of American goods and services by 2021 and is expected to ease some of the tariffs it has placed American products.
But the agreement preserves the bulk of tariffs that Mr. Trump has placed on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods, and it maintains the threat of additional punishment if Beijing does not live up to the terms of the deal.
“Today we take a momentous step, one that has never been taken before with China toward a future of fair and reciprocal trade with China,” Mr. Trump said at a ceremony at the White House. “Together we are righting the wrongs of the past.”
The deal caps more than two years of tense negotiations and escalating threats that at times seemed destined to plunge the United States and China into a permanent economic war. Mr. Trump, who campaigned for president in 2016 on a promise to get tough on China, pushed his negotiators to rewrite trade terms that he said had destroyed American industry and jobs, and he imposed record tariffs on Chinese goods in a gamble to get Beijing to accede to his demands.
“As a candidate for president, I vowed strong action,” Mr. Trump said. “Unlike those who came before me, I kept my promise.”
Mr. Trump seized on the signing as a welcome distraction from impeachment proceedings that were taking place across town at the Capitol, where lawmakers were about to vote to approve House prosecutors for a Senate trial.
At a lavish White House ceremony crowded with cabinet members, members of Congress and executives from some of America’s biggest companies, Mr. Trump denounced the inquiry as a “hoax,” and encouraged Republican lawmakers in attendance to leave if they needed to go vote against moving forward on the matter.
“I’d rather have you voting than sitting here listening to me introduce you,” Mr. Trump said. “They have a hoax going on over there — let’s take care of it.”
The agreement is a significant turning point in American trade policy and the types of free-trade agreements that the United States has typically supported. Rather than lowering tariffs and other economic barriers to allow for the flow of goods and services to meet market demand, this deal leaves a record level of tariffs in place and forces China to buy $200 billion worth of specific products within two years.
To Mr. Trump and other supporters, the approach corrects for past trade deals that enabled corporate outsourcing and led to lost jobs and industries. To critics, it is the type of managed trade approach that the United States has long criticized, especially with regard to China and its control over its economy.
Rather than trying to change China’s approach, it leans into it by requiring Beijing to buy set amounts of certain goods and services. The text of the agreement stipulates that “China shall ensure” purchases and imports into China meet that $200 billion figure by 2021.
The deal also does little to resolve more pernicious structural issues surrounding China’s approach, particularly its pattern of subsidizing and supporting key industries that compete with American firms, like solar energy and steel. American businesses blame those economic practices for allowing cheap Chinese goods to flood the United States market, putting domestic firms out of business.
Instead, like the presidents who preceded him, Mr. Trump plans to rely on allies and the World Trade Organization to try to push China to change its ways.
“A ceremony at the White House can’t hide the stark truth about the “phase one” China trade deal: The deal does absolutely nothing to curtail China’s subsidies to its manufacturers,” Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which manufacturers and United Steelworkers, said in a tweet. “All those “forgotten men and women” in U.S. factories have, once again, been forgotten.”
The president’s approach may pay off politically. He will head into a re-election campaign with a commitment from China to strengthen its intellectual-property protections, make large purchases of American products and pursue other economic changes that will benefit American business. Even before the deal was signed, Mr. Trump’s supporters said the president took China on and won.
But the agreement has plenty of critics in both parties, who say that Mr. Trump’s tactics have been haphazard and economically damaging, and that the agreement leaves many important economic issues unresolved.
That includes cybersecurity and China’s tight controls over how companies handle data and cloud computing. China rejected demands to include promises to refrain from hacking American firms in the text, insisting it was not a trade issue.
The administration has said it will address some of these changes in Phase 2 of the negotiations and is keeping tariffs in place in part to maintain leverage for the next round of talks. Mr. Trump said if the two sides could reach agreement on the next phase, all of the tariffs he has placed on China would come off.
“I will agree to take those tariffs off if we’re able to do Phase 2,” he said.
But Mr. Trump has already kicked the deadline for another agreement past the November election, and there is deep skepticism that the two countries will reach another trade deal anytime soon.
In the interim, the remaining tariffs will continue to inflict financial pain on American businesses that rely on Chinese imports and the consumers who buy their products.
As part of the deal, Mr. Trump agreed to reduce the rate on tariffs imposed in September and forgo additional import taxes in the future. But the United States will continue to maintain tariffs covering 65 percent of American imports from China, according to tracking by Chad Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics. That leaves the United States with an overall tariff rate higher than that of any other advanced nation, as well as China, India and Turkey.
China will still tax 57 percent of imports from the United States in retaliation, according to Mr. Bown, though it’s possible some of those levies may be waived in the weeks to come.
Before the deal was signed on Wednesday, it was already under fire from top Democrats. Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader from New York, criticized the agreement for failing to address China’s state-owned enterprises and industrial subsidies. He suggested that President Xi Jinping of China was privately laughing at the United States over the weakness of the deal and that China has “taken President Trump to the cleaners.”
“This Phase 1 deal is an extreme disappointment to me and to millions and millions of Americans who want to see us make China play fair,” Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor. “President Trump’s Phase 1 trade deal with China is a historic blunder.”
The trade deal contains a variety of wins for American industry, including opening up markets for financial services, pharmaceuticals, beef and poultry.
The text outlines what China will buy from the United States during the next two years. That includes substantial purchases from American farmers, who have been hit hard by the trade war.
Of the $200 billion, just $32 billion, or 16 percent, of the purchases will be of farm products such as oilseeds, meat and cotton. Banks, drug companies and the energy industry are also big beneficiaries.
China has also committed to refrain from forcing American companies to hand over their technology as a condition of doing business there, under penalty of further tariffs. Beijing has also promised to refrain from devaluing its currency, the renminbi, to gain an advantage in export markets, among other pledges.
Those terms appear likely to benefit American companies and increase exports in coming months, potentially narrowing the trade deficit with China, which has become a focal point for Mr. Trump.
The president trumpeted many of China’s concessions during the signing ceremony, singling out audience members who will benefit from the trade deal. He called out a litany of Wall Street executives, many of whom have been pressing for greater access to China’s financial services market, including Stephen A. Schwarzman, the chief executive of the private equity firm Blackstone Group; Kenneth C. Griffin, the billionaire founder of the hedge fund Citadel; and the heads of Citibank, Visa, Fidelity Investments and American International Group.
Referring to the energy purchases in the agreement, Mr. Trump called on Senator Joni Ernst, the Iowa Republican: “You got ethanol, so you can’t be complaining.”
But those wins have come at a heavy price. The uncertainty created by Mr. Trump’s tariff threats and approach to trade has weighed on the economy, raising prices for businesses, delaying corporate investments and slowing growth around the globe. Businesses with exposure to China, like Deere & Company and Caterpillar, have cut some workers and lowered revenue expectations, in part citing the trade war.
And although Mr. Trump claims that China is paying for his tariffs, studies show that American companies are bearing much of the cost. Since July 6, 2018, when the first tariffs went into effect, companies have paid more than $42 billion in tariffs related to the trade war with China.
Clete Willems, a partner at Akin Gump who left the White House last year, said the deal was important for proving that the United States and China could solve problems with each other despite disagreements and heightened tensions.
“We didn’t fix every single problem with China in this agreement, there is no question about that,” Mr. Willems said. “But what was done is really significant.”