The trade war triggered by US tariffs has invited retaliatory levies by China. Soybean is a commodity China imports in large quantities from the US. Photo: VCG

China on Wednesday maintained its firm position in the escalating trade war with the US despite seemingly softening tones from Washington, and took a cautionary approach to the olive branch extended by US officials to resume talks.

Though Chinese officials have also expressed hopes to continue with negotiations to defuse tensions, they are unlikely to back down from their stated positions, and US officials need to show their sincerity before new talks, Chinese analysts noted.

As strong anti-US sentiment appeared to spread across the nation, with some calling for a boycott of US goods, such as iPhones and soybeans, Chinese officials also remained defiant.

At a routine press briefing on Wednesday, Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, harshly criticized the US for escalating the trade war and firmly defended China’s stance.

“I want to be very clear: It was the US that started the trade war, not China. It was the US that fired the first shot by increasing tariffs, not China. It was the US that is engaging in repeated manipulation and maximum pressure, not China,” Geng said, noting that China’s response was “aimed at defending not only its own legitimate rights and interests but also multilateralism and the free trade system.”

After the US increased tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods on Friday, China also raised tariffs on $60 billion in US goods. The back-and-forth has roiled global financial markets and left US farmers and consumers worried.

Softer tone 

Facing firm retaliation from China and fierce domestic opposition, US officials have in recent days appeared to have softened their tone.

Speaking to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump downplayed the escalating trade war, describing it as “a little squabble,” and denied that the trade talks have collapsed. “We have a very good dialogue. We have a dialogue going,” he said.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was also planning to travel to Beijing for new talks with Chinese officials “at some point soon,” Reuters reported on Tuesday. Trump has also said that he would meet President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Japan in June, CNN reported. 

Chinese officials have not confirmed those plans. Asked about potential talks on Wednesday, Geng referred reporters to “relevant agencies” for more information. On Tuesday, Geng said that he did not have information to provide on a meeting in Japan.

“It looks like US officials might have realized that its tough approach does not work on China,” said Li Yong, deputy chair of the Expert Committee of the China Association of International Trade, adding that the US must show its sincerity before China can agree to new meetings.

He pointed out that despite their seemingly softer tone, US officials are also preparing to impose duties on $300 billion in Chinese goods. “I don’t think that’s helpful because China is already tired of this trick,” he said.

Tu Xinquan, dean of the China Institute for WTO Studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, said that China has drawn its bottom line publicly, which means “there’s no backing down.” 

“The ball is in the US court. If they can accept that, then we can still talk. If they don’t accept that, then so be it,” Tu said.