U.S. Opens Difficult China Trade Talks

By Jacob M. SchlesingerFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

The Trump administration launched its first economic talks with China on Wednesday, amid signs that new difficulties were emerging in the friendly dialogue the two governments have been holding over the past three months.

"The fundamental asymmetry in our trade relationship and unequal market access must be addressed," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said at the outset of the discussions Wednesday morning.

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Mr. Ross praised as "significant" some sector-specific market-opening agreements reached between the two governments earlier this year, but added: "The hardest work remains to be done."

People familiar with the meetings said that, as of early Wednesday, U.S. officials were expecting a tough day of discussions and that considerable distance remained between the two sides over what kind of concrete agreement -- if any -- they hope to reach during the day.

As the opening ceremony for the daylong talks was winding down, the Treasury Department announced it was canceling a 5 p.m. news conference that had been scheduled for Mr. Ross and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the U.S. co-chairmen of the talks. The Treasury didn't provide a reason for the cancellation, but the people familiar with the discussions said it may be intended to signal displeasure with the prospects for reaching any agreement Wednesday, or a sense that they may have nothing concrete to announce by day's end.

The Chinese government also canceled its planned news conference, without offering an explanation.

During last year's presidential campaign, President Donald Trump regularly criticized Chinese trade policy, and China's $300 billion trade surplus with the U.S., vowing to take drastic unilateral action -- such as across-the-board tariffs -- to curb the imbalance.

As president, he has taken a softer tone, especially during an April Florida summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, where the two leaders vowed to work together in a new "comprehensive economic dialogue" to craft a blueprint for rebalancing the economic relationship over 100 days. This week's talks were scheduled to mark the end of that timetable.

Mr. Trump has also continued to hold out the possibility of using unilateral enforcement actions to pressure China if the dialogue doesn't yield results he considers satisfactory. His administration is, among other things, weighing plans to place tariffs on steel imports as a way of putting new pressure on Beijing to curb overcapacity in that sector.

Officials didn't release a more specific agenda of topics or sectors that would be covered during Wednesday's discussions. The meetings are scheduled to last until late afternoon. Mr. Mnuchin said at the opening ceremony that the day's talks would cover "a range of issues," including "Chinese intervention in the economy" in industry and agriculture, as well as Chinese "cyberpolicies."

Wednesday's talks are similar to high-level economic discussions launched in 2006 under President George W. Bush and continued under President Barack Obama. But Mr. Trump has decided to put a greater emphasis on the economic side of the relationship, by splitting economic and security meetings that were run together under Mr. Obama.

As an early down payment for the 100-day effort launched by Messrs. Trump and Xi, the two sides in early May announced five sector-specific market-opening measures, focused on finance and agriculture.

"Compared with previous economic talks, this comprehensive economic dialogue is an even more daunting task as it will focus on topics of overarching and strategic importance to our economic cooperation," Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang said, joining Messrs. Ross and Mnuchin. "Our two teams have worked around the clock" in preparation for the Wednesday session, he added. He said the talks had been "more frequent and intense" than intricate, lengthy talks surrounding China's 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization.

Write to Jacob M. Schlesinger at jacob.schlesinger@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 19, 2017 11:56 ET (15:56 GMT)