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China People's Congress

China upbeat on reaching trade deal despite US doubts

Vice minister says Belt and Road nations' debt issues predate Beijing

Chinese Vice Premier Liu He speaks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer during a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington last month.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- Chinese officials are optimistic that trade talks with the U.S. remain on track despite doubts cast in recent days by senior American officials.

"My feeling is that there is still hope," Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen told a news conference Saturday on the sidelines of the National People's Congress.

From Beijing's perspective, the primary goal of the talks remains simply to roll back the import tariffs each side has put in place over the past year's conflict on the other's goods, which Wang said had already been agreed in principle.

U.S. President Donald Trump, however, told reporters on Friday that he was willing to walk away from a deal with Beijing if the terms are unsatisfactory. "If we don't make a very good deal for our country, I wouldn't make a deal. If this isn't a great deal, I won't make a deal," he said.

Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Bloomberg TV the same day that the American side does not want a "quick deal just to get a pop in the stock market." He added that a planned summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping could be pushed back to April. Earlier reports had indicate the meeting would take place later this month at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China, meanwhile told the The Wall Street Journal that preparations for a summit are not yet underway as negotiators need to further narrow the gap in their positions.

Despite this, Wang said Saturday that trade negotiators are sparing no effort to implement the consensus reached when Trump and Xi met in Argentina in December.

Wang said recent disappointing export figures for both countries showed that the conflict had been "bad for workers, farmers, exporters and manufacturers -- and hurts investor confidence and delays the decision-making process of companies."

Wang said that other trade negotiations are also progressing. He was upbeat about talks with Tokyo and Seoul on a trilateral free trade agreement, saying three rounds of negotiations will be held this year, starting with one in Japan.

On the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which also includes India, Australia, New Zealand and 10 Southeast Asian nations, he said Beijing would host technical talks involving 700 specialists later this year.

While the U.S. and China have different motives in seeking reform of the World Trade Organization, both support moving forward with negotiations. The U.S. and other Western nations have expressed unhappiness with Beijing's exploiting its status as a "developing nation" at the WTO to avoid taking certain steps to open its markets and have complained of WTO rules requiring "consensus" on all significant decisions.

Commerce Minister Zhong Shan set out Beijing's firm stance on both points. Beijing will insist on keeping the consensus principle, which gives it an effective veto, and insuring that developing nations continue to enjoy "special and differential treatment" and more flexibility on implementing opening measures, he said.

Separately, China refuted claims that Xi's flagship Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure development program benefits only Beijing while aggravating debt problems for other countries.

Debt to China is a small portion of most countries' overall debt, Vice Commerce Minister Qian Keming said, citing the example of Pakistan where debt to Beijing represents around 10% of the country's total versus more than 40% owed to multilateral international finance institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

"Internationally, the debt issue is an old problem," Qian said. "The ones who want to borrow money [now] are those who need it."

He said the BRI program's focus in its next phase would expand beyond infrastructure toward industrial development and new areas like e-commerce.

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