China envoy warns of dire consequences if US hardliners hold sway

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Beijing’s ambassador to Washington on Tuesday warned of dire consequences if US hardliners try to "decouple" the world’s two largest economies via an escalation of the current trade feud.
China's ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai recalled the tariff wars of the 1930s, which contributed to a collapse of global trade and the Great Depression. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - China is going to this week's G-20 summit hoping for a deal to ease a damaging trade war with the United States, Beijing's ambassador to Washington said on Tuesday (Nov 27), while warning of dire consequences if US hardliners try to separate the world's two largest economies.

Speaking to Reuters before heading to join Chinese President Xi Jinping's delegation at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Mr Cui Tiankai said China and the US had a shared responsibility to cooperate, in the interests of the global economy.

Asked whether he thought hardliners in the White House were seeking to separate the closely linked US and Chinese economies, Mr Cui said he did not think it was possible or helpful to do so, adding: "I don't know if people really realise the possible consequences - the impact, the negative impact - if there is such a decoupling."

He drew parallels to the tariff wars of the 1930s among industrial countries, which contributed to a collapse of global trade and heightened tensions in the years before World War II.

"The lessons of history are still there. In the last century, we had two world wars, and in between them, the Great Depression. I don't think anybody should really try to have a repetition of history. These things should never happen again, so people have to act in a responsible way."

Asked whether he thought the current tensions, which have seen the two sides impose tit-for-tat tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of goods, could degenerate into all-out conflict, Mr Cui called the outcome "unimaginable" and said the two countries should do everything to prevent it.

Mr Cui said China did not want to have a trade war and sought a negotiated solution to the impasse stemming from US President Donald Trump's demands for far-reaching Chinese concessions to correct a US$375 billion (S$516 billion) goods trade deficit with China.

"We are against any trade war," the ambassador said, but added that China would "fight to safeguard our own interests".

"We believe that the key to a negotiated solution to the trade issues is a balanced approach to the concerns of both sides, and honestly so far, I have not seen sufficient response from the US side to our concerns."

"We cannot accept that one side would put forward a number of demands and the other side just has to satisfy all these things."

White House chief economist Larry Kudlow said on Tuesday that Mr Trump was open to a trade deal with China, but was prepared to hike tariffs on Chinese imports if there is no breakthrough on long-standing trade irritants during a planned dinner on Saturday in Buenos Aires with Mr Xi.


Mr Cui said he did not believe Beijing was seriously considering using its massive US Treasury debt holdings as a trade war weapon, citing concerns that such a move would destabilise financial markets.

"This is very dangerous, this is like playing with fire," he said when asked if China would consider selling Treasuries or reducing purchases should trade tensions worsen.

Trade and economic analysts have often said China could slow its purchases of US Treasuries or sell off its holdings to pressure Washington into a deal.

China is the largest foreign holder of US Treasury debt, with US$1.15 trillion on Sept 30, according to the latest Treasury data, compared with US$1.19 trillion a year earlier.

As of Monday, there was about US$15.97 trillion of total public Treasury debt outstanding.

Mr Cui said China's Treasury holdings were a good example of the economic interdependence between the US and China.

He said Mr Trump and Mr Xi had "a very good working relationship and personal friendship" formed in three previous face-to-face meetings, including two formal summits, and this had been shown by a long phone conversation in early November.

White House insiders say there remain substantial differences within the Trump administration over how far to push China.

The division groups on one side anti-China hardliner and trade adviser Peter Navarro, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and those who favour a complete re-evaluation of the relationship.

On the other side are pragmatists led by Mr Kudlow and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, concerned about the harm deepening friction could do to the US economy and markets.

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