China's former trade negotiator questions tariff strategy

File photo of Long Yongtu at a forum in 2005. The former top trade negotiator had also paved the way for China's admission to the World Trade Organisation.
File photo of Long Yongtu at a forum in 2005. The former top trade negotiator had also paved the way for China's admission to the World Trade Organisation.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

BEIJING (AFP) - China's former top trade negotiator has questioned Beijing's strategy in the trade row with Washington, offering a rare window into a policy disagreement in the Communist-ruled country.

Mr Long Yongtu, who paved the way for the country's admission to the World Trade Organisation, suggested the government erred by immediately retaliating against Washington tariffs by imposing levies on soybeans from the United States.

Mr Long said he had advised before the trade war's first tariff volley this summer that "I hope when you start hitting back, you'll avoid hitting agricultural products" and leave them for last.

"Instead, from the very start, we hit their agricultural products and soybeans," China's former chief representative for trade negotiations said at a Caixin media business forum on Sunday (Nov 18).

China slapped 25 per cent tariffs on American soybeans - its single largest import from the US - and other products in July immediately after President Donald Trump fired at US$50 billion (S$68.7 billion) in Chinese imports.

The move was widely seen as an attack on Mr Trump's agricultural base of electoral support, and tacitly acknowledged as such by Chinese officials.

"I said from my experience in China-US trade, agricultural products are very sensitive, soybeans are very sensitive," Mr Long said.

When China was negotiating its WTO entry, the US wanted to bring politics into the discussion, said Mr Long.

 

"But if you talk politics you will never reach a deal," he warned, recommending the world's top two economic giants engage narrowly on trade and avoid the larger strategic rivalry to strike a deal.

But Mr Long's interlocutor on stage, and during the WTO negotiations nearly two decades ago, former US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, cautioned that the gulf between the two powers was expanding.

"China's economy and economic policies have been on a divergent course from market economics... accelerating in the last four or five years," Ms Barshefsky told the Caixin forum.

The shift to a state-led system is a "fundamental conflict between China and the United States and other countries Europe, Japan, Australia", she said. "It is difficult to resolve."