Some Trump administration officials have signaled that the negotiations are narrowing around a smaller initial deal that would stave off additional tariffs, but not roll back the duties on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports that Mr. Trump has already imposed. In exchange, China would follow through with promised purchases of American goods and services and some modest economic changes reforms.
A person familiar with the negotiations said that there were signs of progress on Wednesday, the first day of talks, but that it did not appear that major breakthroughs were imminent on many of the major concessions the United States is seeking. There continues to be division within the Trump administration over what would constitute a sufficient deal, with some advisers such as Mr. Lighthizer urging Mr. Trump to push China harder for major concessions. Other advisers, such as Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, have warned Mr. Trump that a protracted trade war and additional tariffs would hurt the president’s economic agenda and spook financial markets.
Business groups in the United States have been pleading with the administration to resolve the trade war, which has dented consumer sentiment in both countries and begun to raise prices for Chinese imports. While many American businesses agree that China needs to change its ways, the tit-for-tat tariffs have started to hurt manufacturers and technology companies, including Apple and Caterpillar.
Myron Brilliant, the head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who has been briefed on the talks, said China had shown some willingness to make reforms on market access issues and intellectual property. However, China has been highly reluctant to budge on sensitive subjects such as technology transfer and subsidies of state-owned enterprises. For that reason, there are significant gaps between the two sides.
“I would now say we are at halftime of the Super Bowl of trade relations,” Mr. Brilliant said. “There is still work to be done.”
Mr. Trump is also facing political pressure to strike a deal. While Democrats, who now control the House, have urged him to be tough with China, Republicans are encouraging the administration to strike a quick deal that secures big changes from China without destabilizing the United States economy. The president is likely to face criticism from both parties if he strikes an agreement that primarily entails China buying more American products without dramatically opening its markets.
“My hope is that the administration will focus on where the real problem lies, and the real problem is Chinese behavior with respect to intellectual property,” Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said in an interview on Thursday. “It’s the theft. I t’s the forced technology transfer. I think those are the items at the top of the list.”