WASHINGTON/BEIJING • The White House says President Donald Trump still wants to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in an effort to end the trade war, a sign of optimism as negotiators from the world's two biggest economies start their latest round of talks this week.
"He wants to meet President Xi very soon," White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Monday.
"This President wants a deal. He wants it to be fair to Americans and American workers and American interests."
Uncertainty whether the leaders will meet to finalise an agreement has stoked concerns that negotiations are faltering as the March 1 deadline approaches. If there is no deal by then, Mr Trump has threatened to more than double the rate of tariffs on US$200 billion (S$272 billion) worth of Chinese imports.
Negotiators from both sides are meeting this week in Beijing, with US officials pressing China to commit to deeper reforms to a state-driven economic model that they say hurts American companies.
Mid-level officials began discussions on Monday in preparation for two days of talks starting tomorrow involving US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He.
Aides to Mr Trump say this week's talks are important as they need to demonstrate credible progress to both the US leader and financial markets. But the two sides are only just starting the work of drafting a common document and still tussling over how a deal may be enforced, which US officials have repeatedly called a crucial element.
As a result, some aides privately acknowledge the most likely scenario is for the March 1 deadline to be extended and for tariffs on some US$200 billion of Chinese imports not to be raised to 25 per cent as Mr Trump has threatened.
But Mr David Malpass, part of the US delegation now in Beijing, yesterday said the March 1 deadline for a trade deal would not be extended, the South China Morning Post reported.
Chinese officials have proposed that Mr Xi and Mr Trump meet on the southern island of Hainan around the time of the annual Boao Forum for Asia, which runs from March 26-29, the Post said, according to a source briefed on the suggestion. But the proposal was preliminary and Washington had yet to respond to the idea, the source said.
It is possible the leaders may get together next month at Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Ms Conway said on Monday, when asked about a report from news agency Axios to that effect. Mr Trump has said no deal will be final until he meets Mr Xi.
"He has forged a mutually respectful relationship with President Xi," Ms Conway said. "They will meet again soon."
The last round of talks in Washington late last month resulted in China importing American soya beans as it implemented promises to buy more US goods.
While those purchases will provide relief to US farmers, there has been no breakthrough on the structural issues separating the two nations, such as industrial policy, government subsidies, protection of intellectual property or forced transfers of technology.
Facing an economic slowdown at home, Beijing has a strong motivation to address US demands and put an end to the trade war.
It has fast-tracked approval of a law that would ban theft of intellectual property and forced technology transfers, but the question is how much more it can compromise.
With Washington now pushing a plan of prioritising spending on artificial intelligence research, it will be difficult to talk China out of its policies to dominate advanced technologies.
And with the March 1 deadline approaching, speculation is growing that it will be hard for negotiators to agree to the complete deal demanded by President Trump.