China's top trade negotiator heading to US to resume talks

China's top trade negotiator, Vice-Premier Liu He, will head to the US to resume trade talks that will be held tomorrow and on Friday, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said yesterday amid signs that discussions were deteriorating.

The ministry's statement confirmed earlier reports that Mr Liu was delaying his trip to Washington by three days and would shorten but not cancel it, which would have dealt a significant blow to the chances of the two sides reaching an agreement.

Separately, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang dismissed remarks by US trade officials who had blamed the latest setback to the talks on China backtracking on substantive promises it had made earlier, and said Beijing has been negotiating in good faith.

"The negotiation is itself a process of discussions, and it is normal for the two sides to have differences," he told reporters at a regular press briefing. "China does not evade contradictions, and is sincere in continuing consultations."

The state of the talks was cast into doubt after Mr Trump's surprise announcement over Twitter on Sunday that he planned to raise tariffs on US$200 billion (S$272 billion) worth of Chinese goods to 25 per cent from 10 per cent because discussions were moving too slowly. He also threatened to slap new tariffs on another US$325 billion worth of Chinese products.

Mr Geng reiterated yesterday that Mr Trump's threat of tariffs on Chinese goods "has appeared many times before", signalling that Beijing viewed it as a bargaining tactic.

But top US trade officials said it was a considered response to China reneging on its commitments.

 
 
 
 

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said China's backtracking became clear over the weekend, when it sent through a new draft agreement that went "back on language that had been previously negotiated". Beijing also wanted to reopen areas that had already been agreed to, he added.

Citing two officials familiar with the US' position, Bloomberg said China had backpedalled on legal changes that US officials could sell back home as the biggest concessions any US administration has got from China. The watered-down draft was the result of Chinese President Xi Jinping vetoing concessions that had been proposed by his negotiators, the South China Morning Post reported, citing sources.

Chinese experts told The Straits Times that key issues on which Beijing is unwilling to budge include reducing the state's economic role, such as by slashing industrial subsidies, and any enforcement mechanism that appears one-sided or which leaves tariffs in place.

"China's position has consistently been to reach a point of mutual accommodation and benefit," said Professor Su Hao of the China Foreign Affairs University.

"But some of the concessions the US is trying to force are not possible because they will cause substantial harm to China's interests."

While both sides say they want talks to continue, the latest tariff threat appears to have hardened China's position not to make further concessions. The ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily newspaper said Beijing "won't even think about" further concessions. "The premise of negotiations is mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, (but) some people feel that threats are convenient tools," it wrote. "So naturally, they should prepare to bear the resulting consequences."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2019, with the headline 'China's top trade negotiator heading to US to resume talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe