China-US relations

China’s US ambassador Cui Tiankai says Beijing confused over who speaks for Trump on trade

In a rare TV appearance, ambassador vows Beijing will defend its own interests and says China must respond to a trade war ‘we never wanted’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2018, 11:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 8:34am

China’s ambassador to the US said Beijing has no choice but to respond to what he described as a trade war started by the US.

“We never wanted a trade war, but if somebody started a trade war against us, we have to respond and defend our own interests,” Ambassador Cui Tiankai said on Fox News Sunday in a rare US television appearance.

His comments come amid high political and economic tensions between the world’s two largest economies, with officials from both nations having traded ever-harsher barbs in recent weeks.

Cui confirmed reports that China has grown frustrated in trade talks because of conflicting signals from the Trump administration. Cui said other ambassadors in Washington shared his frustration.

“They don’t know who was the final decision-maker” in the administration, he said. “Of course, presumably the president would take the final decision. But who is playing what role? It can be very confusing.”

He also complained about a recent incident in which a US navy ship, in a so-called “freedom of navigation” exercise, sailed close to a disputed island claimed by China in the South China Sea.

“This is a very good example of American intervention into Chinese internal affairs,” Cui said, adding that US officials would not be pleased if Chinese warships entered the Gulf of Mexico.

Cui also dismissed as “groundless” a suggestion by Vice-President Mike Pence that China has orchestrated an effort to meddle in US domestic affairs.

Pence ramped up the rhetoric in a speech on October 4, saying Beijing has created a “a whole-of-government approach” to sway American public opinion, including spies, tariffs, coercive measures and a propaganda campaign. His comments were some of the most critical about China by a high-ranking US official in recent memory.

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The tough words followed months of increases tit-for-tat tariffs imposed by Washington and Beijing that have ballooned to cover hundreds of billions of dollars in bilateral trade.

In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Cui said the US has “not sufficiently” dealt in good faith with the Chinese on trade matters, saying “the US position keeps changing all the time so we don’t know exactly what the US would want as priorities”.

The escalating trade row was seen as a contributing factor to last week’s global market rout that sent the S&P 500 and other major US indexes to their worst performances in months.

Larry Kudlow, the White House economic director, said on the same show that US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will “probably meet” at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in late November.

“There’s plans and discussions and agendas” being discussed, he said.

Cui said he was present at two previous meetings of Xi and Trump, and that top-level communication “played a key role, an irreplaceable role, in guiding the relationship forward”. Despite current tensions the two have a “good working relationship,” he said.

So far, talks with China on trade have been “unsatisfactory,” Kudlow said. “We’ve made our asks” on allegations of intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers, he added. “We have to have reciprocity.”