War of words as U.S.-China trade talks end in stalemate

Hours after US President Donald Trump said he expects a trade deal to be reached with China soon, America’s top trade negotiator refuted those claims, saying no progress has been made on key structural issues with Beijing.

Republican US Senator Chuck Grassley relayed his conversation with United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to the press on Tuesday. Although there were some positives to the discussions, such as China resuming purchases of soybeans, Lighthizer’s appraisal of the negotiations was largely negative.

“He (Lighthizer) said that there hasn’t been any progress made on structural changes that need to be made,” Grassley said, as reported by Reuters. He made the comments 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.

Grassley’s conversation with Lighthizer followed a meeting between mid-level US and Chinese officials in Beijing last week.

The aim of the discussions was to address complaints from the US over China’s unfair trading practices, such as intellectual property theft, and to strike a deal for China to buy more US products, closing its US$323 billion trade surplus with the US.

Grassley’s admission came just hours after Trump claimed he anticipated a deal to be struck with Beijing soon.

“We are doing very well with China. They’re having a hard time with their economy because of the tariffs,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

“I think that we are going to be able to do a deal with China.”

The negotiation teams are hoping to come to an arrangement before the end of a 90-day truce in the US-China trade war. Trump has agreed to hold off on raising tariffs on another US$200 billion worth of Chinese goods, but has made it clear the 25 percent rate will be applied if they fail to reach an agreement before the March 2 deadline.

Despite Trump’s tariff hikes, the Chinese trade surplus with the US hit a record high in 2018 as exporters rushed to full orders before the measures took effect. In December, however, the trade war was starting to bite. China reported a drop in manufacturing and a slowdown in their economy, which is expected to continue into 2019.

Higher-level discussions have been scheduled for the end of January in a bid to reach a resolution.

Reuters reports that 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.

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