High-level meeting in Washington raises hopes for deal on US-China trade dispute

(From left) Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe, Chinese Politburo Member Yang Jiechi, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis hold a news conference in Washington, on Nov 9, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING - Stark differences between the United States and China were on display at Friday's dialogue between their defence chiefs and top diplomats but the meeting still raised hopes among Chinese experts that both sides would be able to make progress in solving deep-rooted trade issues.

The security and diplomatic dialogue - between Chinese state councillor Yang Jiechi, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis - was a significant and positive step forward, they said.

While both countries' positions on issues including Taiwan and the South China Sea differed, each stressed the importance of cooperation.

They also agreed to develop a framework for military-to-military conflict de-escalation and communication.

Mr Yang said that China was committed to resolving trade issues through negotiation, while Mr Pompeo said bilateral cooperation remained essential despite their differences.

The meeting is the latest sign that tensions between the world's two biggest economies could be easing.

"The fact that this dialogue took place and was not postponed again is a very positive sign, and helpful to solving the trade issue," said Dr Wang Huiyao, president of the Beijing-based think-tank, the Centre for China and Globalisation.

The security dialogue was originally scheduled for October in Beijing, but was postponed after ties soured over trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

China and the US are locked in a trade war over what Washington views as China's unfair trade practices and both sides have levied tariffs on hundreds of billion of dollars of each other's goods.

But some experts are hoping that an agreement on trade can be reached when Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump meet at the G20 Summit in Argentina at the end of this month.

This follows a phone call between the two leaders earlier this month.

At a forum in Singapore this week (Nov 6), Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan also signalled that China was ready to work for a solution acceptable to both sides.

In the run-up to Friday's dialogue in Washington, Chinese state media painted it as an opportunity for the two sides to mend ties and resolve disputes.

On Saturday (Oct10), nationalist tabloid Global Times also took a positive tone.

"Rarely under the current circumstances have both sides expressed such constructive attitudes. This is valuable, as it relieves tensions between the two sides. Only in this way can Beijing and Washington promote their relationship and stop it from deteriorating," it said in an editorial.

Associate Professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore said recent developments seem to signal that Beijing is prepared to make "significantly more concessions" on trade.

"Some of those new concessions may to some extent pacify the Americans and satisfy their demands, but Washington must also be realistic in their expectations," he said.

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