Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin upbeat after first day of US-China trade war talks in Washington

  • US treasury secretary makes brief but positive comment as other delegates remain tight-lipped at end of opening negotiations
  • Leader of Chinese delegation, Vice-Premier Liu He, expected to meet Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Thursday
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2019, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 February, 2019, 1:29am

US and Chinese officials had a “good conversation” during the opening session of their high-stakes trade talks in Washington on Wednesday, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said as the two delegations filed out.

With the negotiations set to continue on Thursday, after which Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He is expected to meet US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, it remains to be seen if the two sides can build on their “good” start.

As brief as his comment was, Mnuchin was the most forthcoming of the officials. His colleague Larry Kudlow, one of Trump’s top economic advisers, refused to comment, while Chinese vice-minister for finance Liao Min said only that he was heading out for dinner.

Earlier in the day, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer had sought to lighten the mood after angry scenes outside the Chinese delegation’s hotel.

After extending a warm welcome to the Chinese team, led by Liu, Lighthizer made a quip about how several of the guests at the dinner between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Argentina last month – at which they brokered the ongoing trade war truce – had been cropped out of photographs taken by the media.

“If you were to the right, you became famous,” he said. “If you were to the left, you weren’t in the picture.”

Trade adviser Peter Navarro – a China hawk and author of Death by China – made the crop as he was sitting “right near the president”, Lighthizer said, but Kudlow said that because he was to Trump’s left, he was a “non-person”.

Protesters rush Beijing delegation as US-China trade war talks get under way

While the joke caused a ripple of laughs from the delegates – there were eight on each side – the tension between them remained palpable, with Navarro appearing particularly stony-faced. With just a month until the end of the truce on March 1, all 16 officials know there is a lot to play for.

Although talks between mid-level officials in Beijing earlier this month were generally considered a success – Trump tweeted at the time that they were “going very well” – analysts are concerned that the two economic giants remain poles apart on key issues.

Those issues range from market access to intellectual property protection and the subsidisation of China’s state-owned companies.

Huawei ‘distrust’ and ‘irrational’ US trade war slammed by leading Chinese academic

The Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) has said it is pushing for an enforcement and verification mechanism to ensure China follows through on commitments such as removing forced technology transfers.

The officials convened at 9am at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building – just a stone’s throw from the White House – where Liu posed for photographs with Lighthizer and Mnuchin, according to a report by People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party.

Reporters were allowed to watch the proceedings for about five minutes, which began with Lighthizer saying: “Very pleased to have you here. Look forward to productive talks.”

Liu replied with: “I’d like to have a nice discussion with you.”

At the end of the morning session in the Eisenhower building, the delegates relocated to the USTR office for round two.

At the end of the talks, Liu and Yi Gang, governor of the People’s Bank of China, were the first to leave, while lower-ranking Chinese officials including Liao and commerce vice-minister Wang Shouwen continued to mill around.

China and US face two more rounds of talks if they want to end trade war before March 1 deadline

At about 6pm, the officials reconvened for dinner at the Willard Hotel, where the Chinese delegation is staying.

The 4½-star establishment was the site of ugly scenes early on Wednesday when protesters charged at Liu, yelling angry remarks such as “Give us back our property!” in reference to Beijing’s forced relocation of Chinese citizens. One woman managed to grab hold of the vice-premier’s leg before security guards pulled her away.

According to the White House, the US delegation comprises Lighthizer, Mnuchin, Navarro, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, USTR chief agricultural negotiator Gregg Doug, undersecretary of the treasury for international affairs David Malpass, and deputy trade representative Jeffrey Gerrish.

As well as Liu, Yi, Wang and Liao, the Chinese team includes National Development and Reform Commission deputy chief Ning Jizhe, foreign vice-minister Zheng Zeguang, agriculture vice-minister Han Jun, and industry vice-minister Luo Wen.