China is 'hopeful' for a trade deal with the US: Chinese official

Chinese Vice-Minister of Commerce Wang Shouwen at a news conference during the ongoing session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, on March 9, 2019.
Chinese Vice-Minister of Commerce Wang Shouwen at a news conference during the ongoing session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, on March 9, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - China has "seen hope" in the trade talks with the United States, a senior Chinese trade official said on Saturday (March 9), stopping short of saying how close both sides are to a deal that will remove additional tariffs slapped on each other's imports.

"The economic and trade teams of both sides are communicating day and night, working on the final text of the agreement," said Vice-Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen at a press conference on the sidelines of the annual parliamentary meeting.

He stressed that any trade mechanism contained in the deal must be fair and equal, referring to the US demands for an enforcement process to ensure China complies withits commitments.

The US has accused China of unfair trade and industrial practices that include forced technology transfers, intellectual property thefts, subsidies for its state-owned enterprises and lack of market access.

This has sparked a trade standoff between the world's two biggest economies since last July, with both countries slapping additional tariffs on each other's imports.

Progress in negotiations has seen Washington suspend further tariff hikes on Chinese imports and all eyes are on when the leaders of both countries will meet to sign off a deal.

Mr Wang, who is also China's deputy trade negotiator, noted that the trade war has seen US exports to China fall by 7 per cent, while China's import and export trade with the US has also plunged 19.9 per cent for the first two months of this year.

"The tit-for-tat tariffs have hurt workers, farmers, exporters and manufacturers. It has damaged investors' confidence and slowed down investment decisions," he said.

But there are ample reasons to be optimistic for a resolution as both sides have conducted three rounds of high-level talks in the past three months, achieving substantial progress on some important issues, he said. He noted that the negotiating teams are making full efforts to reach an agreement based on the direction laid out by the leaders of both countries.

"That is, to remove all the tariffs imposed on each other so that bilateral trade relations between China and the US can return to normal."

To illustrate the efforts made by both sides to reach consensus, Mr Wang revealed details of what the negotiators ate and drink.

At the talks in Washington, Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer both had take-out lunches.

"Vice-Premier Liu had a beef burger and Mr Lighthizer had (a Chinese dish of) eggplant and diced chicken," he said.

"And during the talks, there was coffee and tea. But both of them didn't drink any coffee or tea. They both drank boiled water. This was to find common ground," he added.

Mr Wang said he is hopeful for a win-win deal that is in line with both countries' interests and the world's expectations. But he did not offer information on whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will go to Mar-a-Largo to meet US President Donald Trump later this month.

China's almost 3,000 lawmakers are set to pass a new foreign investment law that bans forced technology transfer by local governments.

Observers have said that the new law was fast-tracked in part to address some of the sticking points in the trade talks with the US.

At the same press conference, Mr Wang noted that the new law will provide important legal protection for foreign firms and ensure a level playing field for them.

It will also ensure foreign firms can transfer funds freely in and out of the country when they want to repatriate profits or withdraw their investments.

He is confident that the implementation of the new law will "greatly improve" China's investment environment.

On Saturday, China's state-owned enterprises regulator defended its state-owned companies as "independent market players" when asked at a press conference if they received preferential treatment from the government.

"They self-manage, are responsible for their own profit and loss, face risks themselves, restrain themselves and develop themselves," said Mr Xiao Yaqing, chairman of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.

He said Chinese regulations does not stipulate that government subsidies are reserved only for state-owned enterprises and not private companies. But the government is also standardising the subsidies to "help create a level playing field and conditions for companies of all sizes, and help to improve the competitiveness of enterprises".