US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin hopes for 'productive' trade meetings in China

BEIJING (REUTERS) – United States Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday (Feb 13) that he hopes for “productive” trade meetings in China this week, as the two countries seek to hammer out an agreement amid a festering dispute that has seen both level tariffs at each other.

US tariffs on US$200 billion (S$271 billion) worth of imports from China are scheduled to rise to 25 per cent from 10 per cent if the two sides cannot reach a deal by a March 1 deadline, increasing pain and costs in sectors from consumer electronics to agriculture. 

Mr Mnuchin, asked by reporters as he left his Beijing hotel what his hopes were for the visit, said “productive meetings”. He did not elaborate. 

Mr Mnuchin, along with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, arrived in the Chinese capital on Tuesday. 

US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he could let the deadline for a trade agreement “slide for a little while”, but that he would prefer not to and expects to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping to close the deal at some point. 

Mr Trump’s advisers have previously described March 1 as a “hard deadline”, but Mr Trump has told reporters for the first time that a delay was now possible.

A growing number of US businesses and lawmakers have expressed hopes for a delay in the tariff increase while the two sides tackle the difficult US demands for major “structural” policy changes by China aimed at ending the forced transfer of American trade secrets, curbing Beijing’s industrial subsidies and enforcing intellectual property rights.

Mr Trump said last week that he did not plan to meet Mr Xi before the March 1 deadline. 

Mr Mnuchin and Mr Lighthizer are scheduled to hold talks on Thursday and Friday with Vice-Premier Liu He, the top economic adviser to Mr Xi. 

The latest round of talks in Beijing kicked off on Monday with discussions among deputy-level officials to try to work out technical details, including a mechanism for enforcing any trade agreement.

A round of talks at the end of January ended with some progress reported, but no deal and US declarations that much more work was needed.

China and the US, the world’s two largest economies, have a series of other disagreements too, including over Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cautioned allies on Monday against deploying equipment from Chinese telecoms giant Huawei on their soil, saying it would make it more difficult for Washington to “partner alongside them”. 

The US and its Western allies believe Huawei’s apparatus could be used for espionage, and see its expansion into central Europe as a way to gain a foothold in the European Union market. 

Both the Chinese government and Huawei have dismissed these concerns. 

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