Chinese and US officials have raised the prospect of resuming talks over trade between the two nations after President Donald Trump ratcheted up the pressure by announcing a huge new round of potential tariffs.
After the US unveiled a list of Chinese imports worth $200bn that could face higher duties, China’s Vice Minister of Commerce Wang Shouwen said, "When we have a trade problem, we should talk about it." While that came amid fresh threats of retaliation from Beijing, it matches some willingness from the Trump team to resume talks at a high level, according to a person familiar with the administration’s thinking.
Communications between senior members of the Trump and Xi administrations have petered out since a third round of formal negotiations ended with scant signs of agreement in early June. The US pushed ahead with a plan to slap 25% tariffs on more than $30bn of Chinese shipments last week, spurring retaliation in kind from Beijing. Trump’s latest salvo threatens to push the trade fight into new territory, with China limited in using tariffs to push back. The government has, however, vowed to respond.
"We should sit down and try to find a solution to this trade problem," Wang said in an interview with Bloomberg in Geneva on Wednesday.
Asian stocks rose on Thursday after a bruising sell-off the previous day, despite there being little fresh evidence that the trade tensions would abate. The yen declined and crude oil steadied after its biggest plunge in two years.
Washington and Beijing now have about seven weeks to strike a deal or dig in for a trade war that could upend corporate supply chains and raise prices for consumers around the world. The US tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods are scheduled to take effect after August 30, when the Trump administration’s consultation process ends.
"It’s extremely important that when two governments get into this kind of situation with each other that even if they are fighting on the official front, that they have something going on in the background that enables them at some point to declare a sort of ceasefire," Rufus Yerxa, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, said in a Bloomberg TV interview on Wednesday. "For the time being the two sides aren’t going to acknowledge that - they’re positioning themselves for the end game."
While there are no formal talks scheduled, dialogue continues between the two countries among lower-level bureaucrats, according to people familiar with the matter. Even as he has slapped duties on Chinese goods, President Trump has continued to emphasize his personal friendship with China’s President Xi Jinping.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said US officials have had high-level talks with Chinese officials on "multiple occasions in the past few months" and have made clear US concerns about the country’s trade practices. “The Trump Administration remains open to further discussions with China, but it is important that China finally address the longstanding concerns that have been repeatedly raised," she said.
But there are growing signs of frustration on both sides. On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, senior Trump administration officials argued that China started the conflict with unfair trading practices and abuse of US intellectual property. One of the officials said the US has repeatedly made its concerns clear and continues to hope for a negotiated solution, but Beijing hasn’t changed its behaviour.
Wang fired back at the Trump administration, saying China won’t yield to "blackmail" or hesitate to retaliate. In its rhetoric, China has consistently tried to paint itself as on the defensive in this trade spat, and as a defender of the multilateral trading order.
"If one party does not honour its words, talks cannot succeed," Wang said. For negotiations to succeed, "no party should point a gun at the other party," he said.
Tensions within the Trump administration over trade are also complicating matters, according to two people familiar with the matter. As the de facto spokesman on economic matters within the cabinet, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took the lead early in the negotiations. But at different points in the talks, other more hawkish members of the administration have taken the helm, such Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, which has confused the Chinese.
Trump himself is frustrated with Beijing’s reluctance to offer more concessions, especially after the US reversed a decision to slap crippling restrictions on Chinese telecommunications-equipment maker ZTE Corp, according to a White House official who declined to be identified.
The US last month agreed to lift the measures once ZTE pays a record fine and consents to management changes. On Wednesday, the Trump administration said ZTE took another step toward ending the ban after the company signed an escrow agreement. ZTE must now deposit $400 million in escrow.
The president also believes China hasn’t been helpful enough in US efforts to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, said the White House official.
"We agreed to the denuclearisation of North Korea," Trump said on Twitter on Monday. "China, on the other hand, may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!"
Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said he had a "great deal of concern" about the trade spat with China and the level of uncertainty it’s creating among farmers and businesses in his state. Futures on soybean, a target of China’s tariff retaliation, have fallen about 16% since the end of May, when the trade conflict started heating up.
"When you don’t know what’s going to be the outcome, it’s very uncertain, and it’s had a definite impact," Grassley told Bloomberg TV. "How long is this going to go on? I hope we can settle pretty soon."
* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER