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Trade-talk offer seen as bid to soften dissent

By ZHAO HUANXIN in Washington | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-09-14 00:54
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Washington's latest proposal for a new round of trade talks with Beijing is a pre-election move by the US administration in response to surging opposition from businesses against the proposed tariffs on Chinese imports, some analysts have said.

The Trump administration has stepped up its communications with China over trade, the White House's top economic adviser said, as an invitation from senior US officials led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was sent to Chinese counterparts, including Vice-Premier Liu He, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

The outreach comes as the world's two largest economies are embroiled in festering trade tensions, with US President Donald Trump poised to decide whether to raise duties on $200 billion of Chinese goods.

China has vowed to "definitely take countermeasures" if the tariff hikes take effect.

The two countries have so far hit $50 billion worth of each other's goods with 25 percent tariffs.

Larry Kudlow, White House economic adviser, would not confirm the meeting invitation, but said that communication with Beijing had "picked up a notch".

'The Treasury Department is in communication with China. I can't go beyond that," Kudlow told reporters outside the White House, adding that he views such communication as a "positive thing", according to Reuters.

Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow and trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said Trump is concerned about the adverse financial market consequences, and thus political impact, if he imposes high tariffs ahead of the November midterm elections.

"Trump wants to show (Congress) and companies that object to the proposed tariffs that he is a reasonable man, willing to negotiate before taking action," Hufbauer told China Daily.

He said the new talks will lead to a quiet period before the November elections, but not a "permanent change" in Trump's policies.

On Wednesday, at least 80 of the leading US trade associations representing thousands of businesses and workers announced the formation of Americans for Free Trade, a multi-industry coalition aimed at opposing tariffs and highlighting the benefits of international trade to the US economy, according to a release from the campaign.

Already, a six-day public hearing on tariffs held in late August saw representatives from a broad cross-section of US businesses and industrial groups voicing their strong opposition against additional duties on Chinese imports, a move that they said would harm American consumers, workers and companies.

Douglas H. Paal, vice-president of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there are "sharp differences" within the US administration about how to manage the trade and economic disputes.

"This reflects an invitation from elements that fear the consequences to the American economy of pushing the trade fight too hard," Paal told China Daily.

Commenting on the timing of the offer of talks, Jon Taylor, a professor of political science at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, said the invitation looks an "awful lot" like a pre-election move.

"Trump is trying to show some progress on the China trade issue before the US 2018 midterm elections," Taylor said.

Taylor also said it could be a "hopeful sign" with Mnuchin involved. The secretary likely will negotiate in good faith with his counterpart, Vice-Premier Liu, said Taylor.

"Mnuchin is known to favor a near-term settlement of the trade war out of concern that it will do further damage to both the US' and China's economies," Taylor said.

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