Has the future of the global economy ever hung so heavily on the whims of one man? And have those whims ever been less predictable? Those are the obvious Monday morning questions as Donald Trump continues to roil the global order with his trade policies.

The latest headline-grabbing bit of unpredictability came on Sunday when the US president tweeted what looked a lot like a de facto presidential pardon for ZTE. The Chinese telecommunications company has been eyed warily by US authorities for years as a potential security threat and is deep in an existential crisis after being caught violating the terms of a $1.2bn plea agreement with the US government for selling restricted US technologies to Iran and North Korea. It has been cut off from its US suppliers and on Friday announced that it was suspending operations.

Mr Trump’s response was that he and Xi Jinping were “working together” to find a “way to get [ZTE] back into business, fast”. “Too many jobs in China lost,” he tweeted just as Americans were sitting down to their Mother’s Day brunches. “Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”

“Too many jobs in China lost” is, of course, about as unexpected a Trumpian phrase as “Make China Great Again!” would be. But it explains and highlights a growing fear in the US business world that Mr Trump is about to hatch a deal with China that they won’t like.

Such a deal would see Beijing buy more US exports to reduce the US’s $337bn trade deficit with China and make other symbolic gestures, while the Trump administration would forgo longstanding US demands for deeper changes.

That would avoid a trade war between the world’s two largest economies and represent a potentially sensible compromise as a result. But it would do little to address the structural issues that many foreign investors have with China or to curtail the “economic aggression” by China that Mr Trump’s own officials have identified.

It also would inevitably rebadge President Trump from a trade warrior the global economy fears into a happy dealmaker, something he seemed eager to embrace in another tweet he sent on Sunday shortly after returning to the White House from his Virginia golf club.

“China and the United States are working well together on trade, but past negotiations have been so one sided in favor of China, for so many years, that it is hard for them to make a deal that benefits both countries,” he said. “But be cool, it will all work out!”

The last bit is not a phrase that China hawks in Mr Trump’s own White House are likely to utter. Peter Navarro, a combative senior trade adviser and cheerleader for tariffs whose usual approach is to belittle anyone challenging him, is there because he wrote a book with the title Death by China. Its last line was not: “But be cool, it will all work out!”

The trade tussle with China is, of course, not the only one Mr Trump has been having. Nor is it the only one nearing a critical moment.

Mr Trump’s plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement are facing a deadline from Congress with Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, saying last week that if Congress didn’t receive a presidential notification that a new Nafta was going to be signed by May 17, it would be logistically impossible to pass any deal through the current Republican-controlled Congress.

The biggest, but far from the only, sticking point in the Nafta talks is over auto rules of origin, with the Trump administration pushing hard for policies such as wage requirements that it believes will repatriate factories and auto jobs to the US. One of the problems in these negotiations has been the administration’s repeated failure to get the US auto industry to buy into its proposals. And that wasn’t helped on Friday when Mr Trump, as the Wall Street Journal revealed over the weekend, reportedly told auto executives meeting him at the White House that he planned to impose 20 per cent tariffs on imported cars and to make them subject to higher emission standards.

There is also, of course, a transatlantic trade feud brewing over Mr Trump’s threatened steel and aluminium tariffs, something the US president discussed with Emmanuel Macron, the French president, on Saturday, according to a White House press release. A June 1 deadline looms for those tariffs to go into effect. But EU members have yet to come up with a common position and Mr Trump’s recent rhetoric has been more combative towards the US’s traditional transatlantic allies than it has towards China, ostensibly the US’s 21st-century rival.

One man is going to decide a lot about the future shape of the global economy in the coming days and weeks. That doesn’t make a lot of people comfortable.

Further reading

From the FT

  • US businesses actually fear a rapid trade deal with China
  • Alan Beattie looks at data protectionism and its menace to global business
  • US tariffs and sanctions are bringing turmoil to the aluminium industry

From our colleagues elsewhere

  • A process for companies to appeal for exemptions from US metals tariffs is in disarray, the New York Times reports
  • The Wall Street Journal looks at whether the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency is being hurt by Donald Trump's trade policies
  • Larry Kudlow is trying to kill the protectionists in the White House with kindness, Politico reports

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