Perhaps the most surprising thing I've heard lately is that mistakes in routine diplomatic tasks threatened the US-China trade negotiations. Considering I've heard that China tends to flood all paths to soft power they can find (and bring enough diplomats to negotiate every single point of interest to them, regardless of how much they care), this is pretty surprising.

Of course, that's not to say the story is false – surprising things happen all the time. But I think it's worth taking the time to imagine less surprising things that look the same, so we can make a more accurate guess about what's going on in the world (and, ideally, make progress on positive trade goals between the largest economies in the world).

The most obvious candidate is that China doesn't want to make progress on the deal. If they simply declined meetings, they'd have to deal with negotiating partners that might become even more aggressive. Disputes about small details also mostly keep you out of major news outlets, and give excuses for minimal progress for a bit. But this is happening right before in-person talks with top American officials, and was clearly given to the press to make sure people didn't get high hopes (as you'd do whether the low-level translation screw-up was real or fake).

I'm not an expert, but the Chinese government probably wouldn't feel awkward at all about feigning incompetence, so long as the screw-up is blamed on people with no authority. It's not like we have a particularly detailed understanding of their internal procedures, and even if we did, it would be easy enough to fake a mistake. You think the mid-level State official that was supposed to get the work done wouldn't go in for an embarrassing interview if it advanced their trade goals?

But, this makes no sense unless they wanted the talks to stall, which there hasn't been a big public discussion about, as far as I have seen. I'm actually reasonably sure they do want talks to stall. Given bipartisan American support for restrictions on trade in the last election, they're in a strange position. Right now, Democrats are actually massively pro-free-trade, largely as a reaction to Trump. If they can hold out in the negotiations until 2021, the next president gets to set the rules, and if those are free trade oriented, everyone wins. If they cut a deal with Republicans now, maybe they lock in restrictions on trade for decades. It's not clear to me what America's high level goals are in this trade dispute, given how brazenly Trump has lied about his motivations (did anyone believe steel tariffs protected national security?). If he wants more restrictions on trade, it's in the world's interest to make sure that deal never gets agreed to. You might even not have a terrible deal translated, in order to buy yourself more time to pretend to think about it.

Would a competent American trade negotiator even be able to detect this? It's possible that the Chinese negotiators would be only told the fabricated story, and not be bluffing. If you send someone into the room only knowing the story you want told, you don't have to worry about their tells. Considering it doesn't change their national interests or disrupt their ability to articulate priorities, it'd be a pretty safe thing to do – the negotiator doesn't need to know why they don't have the translation ready.

It might be a screw-up, it's not like governments are particularly immune to ludicrous mistakes, after all. But this is perhaps one of the most salient elements of modern diplomacy. Are we ready to give the Communist Part of China the benefit of the doubt?