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Trade War

China sizes up hawk Lighthizer as trade talks begin

Beijing confirms intention to reach common ground within 90-day timetable

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, far right, attends the dinner between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires on Saturday.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China on Wednesday confirmed its intention to find solutions to its trade war with the U.S. within an agreed 90-day timetable, after President Donald Trump and other officials issued threats of consequences if Beijing failed to deliver during the period.

"The economic and trade teams of the two sides will actively promote the consultation work within 90 days in accordance with a clear timetable and road map," said a spokesman for China's Ministry of Commerce.

The Chinese government had "confidence in the implementation," of what was agreed at the meeting between Trump and President Xi Jinping in Argentina on Saturday, he said.

Beijing would "start from implementing specific issues [on which they] have reached consensus," he added, without specifying the details.

Experts say the selection of China hard-liner Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, as Trump's point man is not entirely bad news for Beijing.

Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, China's chief trade negotiator and Xi's close aide, was reportedly skeptical of dealing with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who led a previous round of trade talks.

In May, Mnuchin declared, "We are putting the trade war on hold," after a two-day consultation with Liu, who had flown into Washington. The two issued a joint statement on trade consultations that spoke of China significantly increasing purchases of American goods and services.

That accord, in the months that followed, was thrown out the window. Lighthizer, who seems to be more trusted by Trump, should prove a more suitable negotiating partner, China hopes.

Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University of China, noted optimistically that the Americans made no mention of the Made in China 2025 high-tech manufacturing initiative, which had been a major sticking point. "The U.S. demands are specific and things that China can meet," he said.

While U.S. officials have begun to disclose some of the commitments made by Xi at the summit, such as reportedly agreeing to remove the 40% tariff on U.S.-made cars and offering to buy an additional $1.2 trillion worth of American goods, including agricultural products, energy and autos, Chinese officials have avoided going into the details.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a news conference Monday that the two sides "put forth a series of constructive proposals on how to resolve the existing differences and problems," and that "China is willing to open its market, expand imports and help mitigate the relevant China-U.S. trade issues." He did not go into the topic of auto tariffs.

The fact that Xi was yet to return to Beijing may be one reason for the muted response.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency issued a commentary Sunday that said, "Saturday's meeting put the brakes on escalating trade friction between the two countries," and that "due to the sheer sizes of both economies and the complexity of their economic relations, substantial settlement of differences will take time."

A White House insider said Lighthizer considers easy compromises with China as a "waste of time."

Trump tweeted Tuesday that talks will last 90 days from his summit with Xi "unless extended." The clock is ticking for the two sides to keep the trade war from escalating further.

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