China's top envoy mocks 'perplexing' US trade policies

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (left) meeting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (raised hand) in Beijing on Monday. Foreign Minister Wang Yi (third from left) chided the US at a press conference where Mr Hunt was present.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (left) meeting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (raised hand) in Beijing on Monday. Foreign Minister Wang Yi (third from left) chided the US at a press conference where Mr Hunt was present.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Beijing dangles possible free trade deal with UK, but formal talks can start only after Brexit

BEIJING • Mr Wang Yi may be China's top diplomat, but yesterday, he sounded like the country's chief lecturer of economics.

The Chinese Foreign Minister took advantage of a visit by his British counterpart to give the United States a mocking economics lesson, saying American policies were to blame for the country's trade deficit and the collapse of talks.

Mr Wang began in response to a reporter's question on trade, saying: "Let me share with you some basic facts and I believe you will make an objective and sensible assessment.

"The US often says that it is taken advantage of, but this is perplexing. It's like someone who buys a US$100 (S$136) product in a supermarket, has the product in hand, and then complains that he is US$100 short," Mr Wang said. "Does that logic stand up?"

Mr Wang's defiant remarks underscored deep divisions between China and the US with just a month before the public hearing ends on US President Donald Trump's proposal to levy tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese goods.

"China and the US have had several rounds of consultations and reached important consensus, but regrettably the US did not fulfil its obligations," Mr Wang said. "Nor did it make concerted efforts with China.

"In fact, the US has gained a lot from its trade deficit with China," he noted.

"It gains massive, inexpensive resources and goods, which increase the welfare of consumers and increase the strength of the dollar," he said.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt - on his first official Asia trip since assuming the post earlier this month - looked on awkwardly as Mr Wang criticised his country's close ally.

While Britain is seeking alternative sources of trade after leaving the European Union next year, China is courting international support in its trade dispute with the US.

Mr Wang said he and Mr Hunt had agreed to work together to uphold free trade, multilateral agreements and World Trade Organisation rules.

Still, he said China was willing to resume talks with the US if the conditions were right.

"China's door of dialogue and negotiation remains open, but any dialogue must be based on equality and mutual respect," Mr Wang said.

"Any threats or pressure by one side will only be counterproductive," he added.

China yesterday offered Britain talks on a post-Brexit free trade deal. Mr Wang had made an offer "to open discussions about a possible free trade deal done between Britain and China post-Brexit", Mr Hunt said.

"That's something that we welcome and we said that we will explore," Mr Hunt said, without elaborating. While a trade pact with China would be a political win for Britain's government, formal talks cannot begin until it officially leaves the EU next year. Free trade talks typically take many years to conclude.

Mr Hunt made a gaffe yesterday, calling his Chinese-born wife Japanese during his meeting with Mr Wang.

"My wife is Japanese ... my wife is Chinese," he said. "That's a terrible mistake to make."

"My wife is Chinese and my children are half-Chinese, and so we have Chinese grandparents who live in Xi'an and strong family connections in China," he added.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2018, with the headline 'China's top envoy mocks 'perplexing' US trade policies'. Print Edition | Subscribe