Then, during Mr. Trump’s visit to China in November, Mr. Ross orchestrated deals that administration officials claimed were worth $250 billion, though their true economic value was far less. The peace that effort bought didn’t last. The United States has since ramped up its criticism of China’s industrial ambitions and threatened to impose tariffs on more than $150 billion in Chinese goods.
China’s efforts to court Mr. Mnuchin have also led to frustration, despite initial signs that they would pay off.
Mr. Mnuchin has suggested publicly that Chinese moves to open up the country’s car market and financial services to international competition could be enough to allay the Trump administration’s trade concerns. Two weeks ago, Mr. Mnuchin said the Trump administration was “putting the trade war on hold.” On the thorny issue of ZTE, Mr. Mnuchin said that the United States hadn’t meant to “put ZTE out of business.”
Then last week, following intensifying pressure from Congress, the Trump administration said it would push ahead with tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods and signaled a potentially tougher stance on ZTE. Mr. Navarro also publicly contradicted Mr. Mnuchin’s comments about suspending the trade war.
The shifts appear to have only stiffened the resolve of American trading partners. After the United States imposed tariffs, Canada and Europe responded quickly on Thursday with their own threats of retaliation. Chinese officials, meanwhile, are still vowing to go through with their planned industrial upgrade, called Made in China 2025, which they see as essential to the country’s security and well-being.
In China, in public discussions and on social media, Mr. Trump’s shifts often play as a sign of instability. Chinese officials, perhaps more than their counterparts elsewhere, strive to strike a consistent message to give the world the impression of a unified government.
“In Chinese culture, when a political leader says something, you mean something,” said Gary Liu, the president of the China Financial Reform Institute, a research group in Shanghai. “China is very upset about the changing attitudes.”