China’s ambassador talks tough on trade, says US officials ‘don’t have sufficient common sense’
Cui Tiankai, usually soft-spoken, says Trump administration ‘should give up the illusion that China will ever give in to intimidation’
As a tit-for-tat trade war between the world’s top two economies prepares for a new round of tariffs, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said that Beijing would not give in to intimidation and coercion from Washington.
His sometimes blunt remarks came as trade tensions look set to escalate further following reports that US President Donald Trump intends to move ahead with the imposition of tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports as soon as next week.
In a speech on Thursday at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, Cui admitted that US-China relations were facing “a big problem” and said there was good reason to be worried about their increasing geopolitical competition and rivalry.
“Of course many people are worried about the impact the current situation would have on the future of our relations and where the China-US relationship is going,” he said.
“I wish to advise people to give up the illusion that another Plaza Accord could be imposed on China. They should give up the illusion that China will ever give in to intimidation, coercion or groundless accusation,” Cui added.
The 1985 Plaza Accord was a deal reached between the Ronald Reagan administration, Japan and other major European powers to resolve their economic rifts and address US trade imbalances.
Chinese officials and state-controlled media have been critical of the accord, describing it as the hinge point in Japan's post-war economic miracle, a negotiation that dealt a disastrous blow to the Japanese economy.
Since the US-China trade war kicked into gear in July, Chinese intellectuals and think tanks have expressed concerns that Trump – a highly transactional leader who claimed to be an admirer of Reagan and his signature slogan of “peace through strength” – might seek a similar pact with China, and that Beijing would be obliged to accept major concessions on trade and other strategic areas.
In language unlike the soft-spoken, moderate style he usually favours, the Chinese ambassador was blunt and sometimes combative, taking a not-so-veiled swipe at Trump and his senior advisers.
“Some people who are in high places or are advising the government and leaders on economic and strategic issues don’t have sufficient common sense.
“They believe that they could point a finger at others and escape the heavy responsibility of addressing the increasing economic and social divides at home. They believe that they could make themselves great by making everyone else their enemies,” he said.
Many pundits in both countries say that the unprecedented scale of trade confrontation reflects growing antagonism and hostility between the two nations, and have sent bilateral ties into their worst downward spiral in decades.
Trump and his top advisers have accused China of continuing with unfair trade practices at the expense of US economic and business interests, part of what they see as President Xi Jinping’s ambition to usurp Washington’s global dominance.
Beijing has put the blame squarely on Trump’s tough stance on China for the rapidly deteriorating ties.
“I think it is such a mindset that could go a long way to account for the current uncertainties in international relations and difficulties in our bilateral relations, especially on trade and economic issues,” Cui said.
Robert Sutter, a China expert at George Washington University, said that while Trump apparently seeks a “grand deal” with China, Chinese leaders cannot afford to appear weak and make large concessions.
More importantly, he said, like many other countries, China may have also found the US leader unreliable and inconsistent.
“If Xi decides to make a big deal with Trump and Trump thinks it’s wonderful, like what he did with North Korea, it could change the dynamics. But I don’t see any sign that Xi is doing this and I don’t think he necessarily has to or he will,” Sutter said.
“Given the unpredictable nature of Trump, there’s no way of getting a solution because he’s not sure if he gets a deal, it’s going to stick. Xi will always have to worry that it will blow up again,” Sutter said.
Watch: The origins and impact of the US-China trade war
Although China and the US have suspended high-level dialogue since early June, Cui said he remained hopeful.
“I’m still confident that our two countries would be able to overcome the difficulties and build a strong and steady relationship for the future, as long as we have a clear understanding of today’s world, as long as we have a clear vision of our common future,” he said.
But he stressed that any negotiations must be held on the basis of mutual respect and “good faith to good faith”.
“China is always ready to engage in serious, substantive and pragmatic negotiations and consultations to address the economic and trade issues on the basis of mutual respect and a balanced approach to resolve the concerns of both sides.
“This has to be a process of goodwill for goodwill and good faith for good faith. If we can reach an agreement through this approach, I don’t think the current economic and trade issues would be that difficult,” he said.
His remarks came after low-level meetings last week failed to produce any visible breakthroughs to the trade confrontation. No plans for further negotiations were announced at the end of the two-day talks between Wang Shouwen, China’s vice-minister of commerce, and US Treasury Undersecretary David Malpass.
But Beijing has stepped up diplomatic efforts to engage with American think tanks and former government officials, in an apparent hope to keep the trade disputes from spilling over into other areas.
On Wednesday Fu Ying, the former foreign vice-minister and chairwoman of the National People’s Congress foreign affairs committee, and Zhu Guangyao, the former vice-minister of finance, led a delegation to New York for a closed-door talks with former US officials and experts at the Asia Society.
Fu and her delegation also accompanied Cui on his visit to CSIS as well as the Brookings Institution on Thursday.
The events was part of two days of round-table discussions about the trade dispute, jointly hosted by several US think tanks and the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
The events Cui and Fu attended were closed to the media. Experts at both think tanks declined to comment on the details of their discussions.
But according to people with knowledge of the events, the attendees had “fervent, candid exchanges of views and constructive consultations” despite their differences.
“I believed both sides found this kind of discussion essential and useful to resolve their disputes and they were satisfied with the fruitful consultations,” said one attendee.
Another attendee said that the discussions were intended to be low profile. “I don‘t think Beijing's lobbying effort is very successful, at least for the moment.”
Daniel Russel, a former assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and now vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, also described the discussions with Fu and her delegation in New York as “frank” and useful.
"The Chinese would be wise to ensure their unhappiness with the Trump Administration’s bare-knuckles approach does not prevent them from fixing the behavior and policies that have eroded American support for the relationship"—@dannyrrussel after private @AsiaSocietyNY roundtable pic.twitter.com/RZzgN2bE5f
— ASPI (@AsiaPolicy) August 30, 2018
“The Chinese would be wise to ensure their unhappiness with the Trump Administration’s bare-knuckles approach does not prevent them from fixing the behaviour and policies that have eroded American support for the relationship”, he said on Twitter after the Wednesday talks.
The latest efforts to lobby American think tanks and experts by Cui and Fu came amid a series of allegations about China’s covert but aggressive influence operations in the US.
A report published last week by the congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission accused the Chinese Communist Party of setting up funds to infiltrate American think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Atlantic Council, Centre for American Progress, EastWest Institute, Carter Centre and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.