The participation of China’s Commerce Minister in the latest trade discussion with the United States was “normal”, China’s Ministry of Commerce said on Thursday, playing down the eye-catching change in Beijing’s negotiating team. Zhong, 64, joined Vice-Premier Liu He’s phone conversation with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday – the first phone call between top negotiators since President Xi Jinping and US counterpart Donald Trump agreed to resume discussions during their summit in Osaka on June 29. While Zhong had previously accompanied Xi at meetings with Trump in both Buenos Aires and Osaka, this was the first time that he had joined in direct conversations with US trade negotiators, a move that put him front and centre in the talks. At a press conference in Beijing, asked why Zhong was on board, Gao Feng, the ministry’s spokesman, said it was “quite normal” as “the [Commerce] Ministry is in charge of trade negotiations”. Gao did not explain why Zhong had not directly taken part in the previous 11 rounds of meetings between US and Chinese trade negotiators. Wang Shouwen, a vice-commerce minister, was a key aide to Liu in previous rounds of talks before the negotiations collapsed in early May. Zhong’s emergence on the front line could bring a subtle change in the dynamic, since his presence would effectively double the number of key figures on China’s side, to balance the two-person leadership on the US negotiating team of Lighthizer and Mnuchin. Zhong, who previously worked under Xi when the president was at the helm of Zhejiang province, is viewed as a hardliner who has strictly toed the party line during his public speeches. Dennis Wilder, a former China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, was quoted by The Washington Post as saying that Zhong’s attendance “has to be seen as a loss of confidence in Liu He and the desire of the leadership to bring in someone more politically savvy”. “I am sure his instructions are to get tougher with the US,” Wilder added. He should be there as China’s commerce minister, and this does not need any special explanation. It is really meaningless to speculate on that Huo Jianguo Huo Jianguo, the former head of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, a think tank under China’s Ministry of Commerce, said there could be some overplaying of Zhong’s addition to the trade talks. “He should be there as China’s commerce minister, and this does not need any special explanation,” Huo said. “It is really meaningless to speculate on that.” The phone conversation this week resulted in little progress, according to the one-line statement from the Chinese side. The two sides did not agree on a future date for face-to-face negotiations, although White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow called the conversation “constructive”. Gao did not provide specific information about the phone conversation at the press briefing, but said the two sides were trying to restart negotiations based on “mutual respect”. “The trade negotiating teams from both countries are fulfilling the consensus reached by the state leaders in Osaka, and both are in close contact over arrangements for the next step,” he said. Gao reiterated China’s stance that Washington should remove all punitive tariffs imposed on Chinese products since the start of the trade war and treat Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies in a fair manner. “China’s position [in restarting trade talks] is consistent and clear. That is, [China’s] core concerns must be addressed properly,” he said. The South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday that Trump had pushed Xi at their Osaka summit to buy US farm products, but that Xi avoided making any concrete commitment.