Beijing casts doubt on state of trade talks after Donald Trump says it wanted a deal

Date: Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Source: South China Morning Post

  • Foreign ministry ‘not aware’ of weekend phone calls in which US president said China asked to ‘get back to the table’
  • The two sides are in contact only at a technical level, state media editor says

Beijing has cast doubt on whether trade talks are set to resume, with its foreign ministry contradicting US President Donald Trump’s claim that China had sought a return to the negotiating table and state media saying the countries were in touch only at a “technical level”.

Markets jumped when Trump said on Monday that China called “our top people” – the US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin – on Sunday evening to “get back to the table” to negotiate to resolve the two countries’ year-long trade war.

The countries had been due to speak on Tuesday, according to a previous statement from China’s Ministry of Commerce after their last telephone call on August 13.

But there has since been no sign of progress on that front and the Chinese foreign ministry again said on Tuesday that it was not aware of the phone calls over the weekend.

“I have not heard of that,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said when asked about the call.

“China and the US should resolve their trade disputes through dialogue. We have had 12 rounds of high-level consultations, and working teams from the two sides are keeping in touch."

“Regretfully the US has announced its decision to add new tariffs on Chinese products. Such maximum pressure will hurt both sides and is not constructive at all.”

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-run tabloid Global Times, also wrote on Twitter that the two sides had maintained contact at a “technical level”, which “doesn’t have [the] significance that President Trump suggested”.

A commentary published on Tuesday by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Dailyadvised the United States not to underestimate China’s determination to fight back.

“China will do what it has said,” the commentary said, referring to Beijing’s tariff measures. “Any attempts to force China to make concessions through extreme pressure will be in vain.”

Question marks over the state of the trade talks – whether negotiations were to resume at a high level, and whether China was eager for a deal or Trump had sought to ease markets – remained after the countries exchanged new tariff threats last week, dampening hopes for a trade agreement in the short term.

Confusion over the state of China-US relations deepened when Trump last week called Chinese President Xi Jinping an enemy, then on Monday praised him as a great leader.

“Sorry, it’s the way I negotiate,” Trump said at the Group of Seven meeting in Biarritz, France.

Last week, China said it would levy retaliatory tariffs of 5 to 10 per cent on US$75 billion worth of US goods. The Trump administration responded by announcing a tariff increase from 25 to 30 per cent on US$250 billion of Chinese goods, and from 10 to 15 per cent on US$300 billion worth of Chinese products.

Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, Beijing’s top trade negotiator, said on Monday at a Chinese technology conference that an escalation of the trade war was not in anyone’s interests.

“We are willing to resolve the issue through consultations and cooperation with a calm attitude and resolutely oppose the escalation of the trade war,” he said.

Trump, known for his use of hyperbole, cited Liu’s remarks as evidence that China wanted a trade deal. When speaking to reporters, Trump also appeared to misidentify Liu’s seniority, describing him as the No 2 politician in China under Xi.

Although he is vice-premier and Xi’s top economic aide, Liu does not sit on the Politburo Standing Committee, the elite seven-member decision-making body, and ranks lower than Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Vice-President Wang Qishan.

“The vice-chairman of China – do you get any higher than that, other than President Xi?” Trump asked. “The vice-chairman made the statement that he wants to make a deal, that he wants to see a call made, mister, he wants it all to happen.”

There is no position of vice-chairman in the Chinese political system.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, the last high-level phone calls between Chinese and US trade negotiators took place on August 13 between Liu, Lighthizer and Mnuchin.

During the G7 summit in France, Trump also suggested that he may have had second thoughts about escalating the trade war. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham later said that his remarks were “greatly misinterpreted”, and that he regretted not raising tariffs on China even higher.


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