US, China moving closer to trade deal despite harsh rhetoric: Sources

US negotiators expect a phase one deal with China to be completed before American tariffs are set to rise on Dec 15, 2019.
US negotiators expect a phase one deal with China to be completed before American tariffs are set to rise on Dec 15, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - The United States and China are moving closer to agreeing on the amount of tariffs that would be rolled back in a "phase one" trade deal despite tensions over Hong Kong and Xinjiang, people familiar with the talks said.

The people, who asked not to be identified, said that US President Donald Trump's comments on Tuesday (Dec 3) downplaying the urgency of a deal shouldn't be understood to mean the talks were stalling, as he was speaking off the cuff.

Recent US legislation seeking to sanction Chinese officials over human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are unlikely to impact the talks, one person familiar with Beijing's thinking said.

US negotiators expect a phase one deal with China to be completed before American tariffs are set to rise on Dec 15, the people said.

Outstanding issues in the talks include how to guarantee China's purchases of US agricultural goods and exactly which duties to roll back, they added.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer's office didn't respond to a request for comment. China's Ministry of Commerce didn't immediately respond to a fax seeking comment on tariff rollbacks.

Mr Trump, speaking on Wednesday at a meeting in London with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the discussions with China are going very well.

"We will make a lot of progress," he said.

When asked in Seoul about whether the trade talks can be finished this year, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, according to Phoenix TV: "It depends. China's stance is very clear. There is hope, as long as it is based on mutual respect and equal consultations."

 
 
 

Stocks rallied in Asia and Europe, while US equities rebounded from declines on Tuesday tied to Mr Trump's comments that he didn't have a deadline to sign an agreement with Beijing.

The offshore yuan was basically unchanged after reversing declines in the previous session.

Investors are closely watching for any signs of progress on a phase one deal as worries increase that Mr Trump may slap more tariffs on China later this month.

The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation on Tuesday that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses against Muslim minorities, prompting Beijing to threaten possible retaliation.

China's ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai said on Wednesday that both countries were trying to resolve their differences on trade, but warned that some forces were trying to drive China and the US apart, according to Reuters.

He didn't go into detail on the forces, and didn't comment directly on the trade talks.

Earlier, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying had blasted US lawmakers as "too ignorant, too shameless and too hypocritical".

While officials from both nations have emphasised repeatedly that talks are making progress and they remain in constant contact, the negative rhetoric on both sides recently has heightened fears that the talks could drag on.

That's despite the fact that Mr Trump's strategy in trade talks has long been to downplay his desire for a deal and slow-walk a negotiating partner.

TARIFF THREAT

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Tuesday that the US will go ahead with its plan to add tariffs on Chinese products if nothing changes come mid-December.

 
 

A report from Chinese state media earlier had indicated the government would soon publish a list of "unreliable entities" if the Xinjiang Bill passes that could lead to sanctions against US companies.

Mr Trump didn't initiate the Bill involving Xinjiang and a law supporting protesters in Hong Kong, and they are separate issues to the trade talks, according to Mr Lu Xiang, an expert in bilateral ties at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, which is affiliated with the State Council.

"If the US follows through with the threat of tariffs on Dec 15, that is definitely a re-escalation, and China will retaliate," Mr Lu said.

Mr Trump is "still weighing the conditions for a deal, but for his political interests, he needs a deal - no matter if it is signed in December, January or February".