Chinese envoy’s lips zipped on trade war talks as United States turns attention to Canada, Mexico and Europe

Vice commerce minister steps back into the limelight but not to illuminate the details of delegation’s discussions in Washington

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 August, 2018, 3:53am

The head of Beijing’s trade talks delegation to Washington last week has avoided all mention of the trade war or his US trip in his first public appearance back in China.

In a press conference on Wednesday to promote an international trade and investment fair in the Chinese city of Xiamen next month, vice commerce minister Wang Shouwen focused on the annual expo and China’s good track record in luring foreign investment.

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All of the questions Wang fielded were from mainland Chinese media and none were about the trade war.

Wang’s silence contrasted with public comments by US officials. On Tuesday US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin set out the Trump administration’s priorities on trade negotiations, saying further talks with China are unlikely until trade issues with Mexico, Canada and Europe are resolved.

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“We’ve put [Washington’s foreign trade objectives] in three categories: the first was really [the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta]; the second is dealing with the EU, which we are making progress on; and the third is China,” Mnuchin said in an interview with CNBC.

Mnuchin’s comments confirmed that Washington is in no hurry to resume official trade negotiations with China after US President Donald Trump said earlier this week it was “not the right time to talk” to China about a resolution of the trade war.

“They want to talk,” Trump said, in reference to Chinese officials. “It’s just not the right time to talk right now, to be honest with China.”

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Wang’s visit to Washington last week for low-level talks hosted by David Malpas, the US Treasury’s undersecretary of international affairs, was the latest official contact between the two governments over the trade war and yielded no concrete results.

In a brief statement, China said Wang had “constructive” and “frank” talks with the US side and the two countries would maintain contact for further arrangements.

But according to some reports, the Chinese told the Americans that it was pointless to engage in further discussions until after the US Congressional midterm elections in November.

Trade tensions escalated again on Thursday when the US enacted punitive tariffs of 25 per cent on US$16 billion of Chinese imports, prompting immediate retaliation from China.

The US initiated the trade war on July 6 by imposing tariffs on US$34 billion of goods, with China matching those sanctions dollar for dollar.

The US also wrapped up an unprecedented six days of public hearings on Monday on plans to impose tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese imports, which are expected to go into effect in September. China will not be able to match the figure since China’s total imports from the US are less than US$200 billion.

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Long Guoqiang, a senior foreign trade researcher with the State Council’s Development Research Centre, wrote in the official People’s Daily on Wednesday that China must continue to focus on its chosen path of “reform and opening up” to cope with the trade war and not to let Washington dictate Beijing’s agenda.

“The [former] Soviet Union was dragged into an arms race by the US in the cold war, and Japan created a bubble economy at home in its trade war [against the US] – these are all profound lessons for us,” Long wrote. “We must not lose our strategic focus.”