Trump’s change of heart on China shows he may still have an eye on his own empire

Cantillon: President is reworking US policy and will reap the rewards when he leaves office

For a president who built his election campaign on a promise to protect American jobs, the tweet from US president Donald Trump was puzzling. "Too many jobs lost in China" the president proclaimed on Sunday, announcing to the world – and, it seems, to most of his officials – that he was reconsidering punitive actions on Chinese mobile phone maker ZTE.

The Trump administration had banned US companies from selling components to the Chinese company – a move that had essentially crippled ZTE.

In addition the US commerce department slapped fines of $1.2 billion (€1 billion) on ZTE last year for violating US sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

The sudden change of heart was announced on the eve of a visit by a high-level delegation from Beijing to Washington to build on last month's visit by treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and others to China. China's vice premier Lie He and his officials arrived in Washington on Tuesday, and details of some form of trade deal are expected by the end of the week.


Sweeping tariffs

Coincidentally, hearings have commenced this week in Washington on the administration’s plans to impose sweeping tariffs on $50 billion of products from China. Dozens of small business owners and trade bodies are making their case to US trade officials that these tariffs on more that 1,300 imports could negatively affect their business.

So what explains the president's change of heart? Many see a compromise in the offering – perhaps a promise by China not to impose sanctions on US agricultural exports such as soybeans. But cynics might point to another reason. This week it emerged that a Chinese state-owned company will lend $500 million to a Trump Organisation project to build a Trump-branded hotel and golf club in Indonesia.

Responding to questions on the matter, the White House referred reporters to the Trump Organisation. But the episode is a telling reminder – Donald Trump may for now be president of the US, but as soon as he leaves office he is likely to return to the business empire he built. For a president embarking on a radical reworking of US trade and tax policy, the potential for conflicts of interest is a worrying feature of the Trump presidency.