Chinese Vice Premier Liu He (left) shakes hands with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer (center) alongside US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as Liu arrives at the Office of the US Trade Representative for trade negotiations in Washington DC. Photo: AP

Chinese officials have been exercising a strikingly high degree of caution over trade negotiations with the US, appearing reluctant to rush into a new round of talks with US officials, given the latter’s lack of sincerity and continued aggressive approach toward China on multiple fronts. 

Such a cautious attitude highlighted the difficulty for the two sides in reaching a trade deal, despite renewed optimism, and underscored Chinese officials’ distrust of US officials, who have shown some interest in reaching an agreement with China to quell growing criticism in the US ahead of the heated election season while also refusing to take any meaningful action to address China’s concerns, Chinese observers noted.

On Tuesday night, Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin over the phone, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) said in a statement on Wednesday morning. 

The brief statement did not offer further details about what had been discussed during the phone call other than saying that the two sides exchanged views on how to implement the consensus reached by the countries’ respective leaders at a meeting in Japan at the end of June.

It was the first official Chinese statement issued on the discussions since the truce and it fell largely in line with what Chinese officials have maintained over the past couple of weeks, where they said the two sides were keeping contact but were reluctant to confirm that talks have or will resume. It remains unclear if and when the two sides will hold face-to-face meetings. 

“Obviously, China is maintaining a very cautious attitude and is preparing for all scenarios, including that there will be no breakthrough in the short term,” said Sang Baichuan, director of the Institute of International Business at the University of International Business and Economics. 

Sang pointed out that although US officials have shown “some positive signals” that they want to continue talks, they have not taken any meaningful action that show their sincerity and instead continue to adopt a hard line toward China on a wide range of issues. “If the US does not have enough sincerity, then the talks will not yield any results,” he said.

A man walks inside a luxury brand shop in Beijing on Monday. China’s economy grew at its slowest pace in almost three decades in 2018, losing more steam in the last quarter as it battles a massive debt pile and a US trade war, official data showed. Photo: AFP

No sincerity

The US Department of Commerce said Tuesday (US time) that it would allow some US companies to resume sales of US-made products to Chinese telecom firm Huawei if those goods are deemed to pose no threat to US national security but maintained that the company remains on its blacklist.

Also on Tuesday, the US administration announced it would exempt 110 Chinese products, including medical equipment and electronic devices, from a 25 percent tariff it imposed on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods in July 2018. 

But those gestures, while positive, are far from what Chinese officials have demanded – that all additional US tariffs on Chinese goods must be lifted and Huawei must be removed from the blacklist – Chinese analysts pointed out. 

“The US has shown some [good faith], but judging from the content [of the move], it is far from sincere,” said Bai Ming, deputy director of the MOFCOM’s International Market Research Institute. 

Some suggested that US officials are only showing they are working to resolve their costly trade war with China to boost the US stock markets and reassure the increasingly concerned US business community and voters ahead of what could be a heated election season and that their true ill-intentioned goal to contain China has not changed.

Recent words and deeds from US officials have also underscored such an assessment. Despite temporarily eased trade tensions, US officials have continued to meddle in Chinese internal affairs by approving arms sales to Taiwan and lending support to violent demonstrations in Hong Kong, prompting harsh criticism from officials in Beijing.  

“There are so many difficulties for the [trade talks] that one negotiation will not solve everything,” said Dong Yan, director of the research section of international trade at the institute of world economics and politics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “Overall, the fight between China and the US could last a very long time.”