US trade chief saw no progress on key issues in China talks: Senator Chuck Grassley

Robert Lighthizer speaking next to US President Donald Trump at the White House in October 2018.
Robert Lighthizer speaking next to US President Donald Trump at the White House in October 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer did not see any progress made on structural issues during US talks with China last week, Republican US Senator Chuck Grassley said on Tuesday (Jan 15) as plans emerged for higher-level discussions at the end of January.

Grassley, who held a meeting with Lighthizer on Friday, said the top trade negotiator commented positively on China's soybean purchases, which resumed in modest amounts last month after Washington and Beijing agreed to a 90-day truce in a trade war that has disrupted the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars of goods.

"But he (Lighthizer) said that there hasn't been any progress made on structural changes that need to be made," Grassley said in his weekly conference call with reporters, adding that those issues would include intellectual property, stealing trade secrets and putting pressure on corporations to share information.

The meeting came after mid-level US and Chinese officials met in Beijing to discuss China's offers to address US complaints about intellectual property theft and increase purchases of US goods and services.

The two sides are trying to reach a deal that averts a scheduled March 2 escalation of US tariffs on US$200 billion (S$270 billion) worth of Chinese goods.

Grassley said Chinese officials were due to visit Washington for further trade talks in a couple of weeks.

"From my point of view... the economy of China is suffering... there is a chance for progress," he said.

A person familiar with the Trump administration's planning for the negotiations said that Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He has accepted an invitation to come to Washington for talks with Lighthizer and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Jan 30 and 31, just ahead of Chinese New Year on Feb 5.

A USTR spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Grassley's remarks to reporters or on specific dates for the next round of US-China talks. The Senate Finance Committee chairman's comments briefly tempered US stock market sentiment.

USTR on Monday said operations including trade negotiations will continue despite a partial government shutdown now into its fourth week.

Halfway through a 90-day truce in the US-China trade war agreed to on Dec 1 when Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina, there have been few details provided of any progress made.

But China has purchased around five million tonnes of US soybeans from the 2018 harvest so far. China in 2017 had booked more than 23 million tonnes of US soy, according to US Department of Agriculture data.

China last week during the talks also approved five genetically modified US crops for import, a move that could boost US grain sales to China.

Trump has vowed to increase tariffs to 25 per cent from 10 per cent on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports on March 2 unless China takes steps to protect US intellectual property, end policies that force American companies to turn over technology to a Chinese partner, allow more market access for US businesses and reduce other non-tariff barriers to American products.

The timeline is seen as ambitious, but the resumption of face-to-face negotiations has bolstered hopes of a deal.

China has repeatedly played down complaints about intellectual property abuses, and has rejected accusations that foreign companies face forced technology transfers.