Top US trade envoy signals intention to meet Chinese counterpart soon

Katherine Tai, US trade representative, says she expects to meet her Chinese counterpart soon, in the first sign that the Biden administration is preparing to talk to Beijing about trade tensions.

Speaking at the Financial Times Global Boardroom forum, Tai said she had not held talks with her Chinese counterpart, but signalled that the two sides would soon hold their first meeting.

“I have not yet [met my counterpart],” Tai said. “I’m looking forward to it, and I expect to in the near term.”

US and Chinese officials have held one high-level meeting in Alaska about strategic issues and John Kerry, climate envoy, has met his counterpart.

But Tai has not held a meeting with Liu He, the top Chinese trade official, prompting some concern among companies that the trajectory of the economic relationship would continue to deteriorate under the Biden administration after four years of volatility during the Donald Trump presidency.

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“The business community and other stakeholders would welcome a meeting between Ambassador Tai and Liu He,” said Wendy Cutler, vice-president of the Asia Society. “It would be an extremely positive sign but everyone should keep their expectations in check. It would be the first step in a fraught relationship on the trade side.”

Testifying before Congress last month, Tai said only that she would meet Liu “at the right time”. Under the narrow “phase 1” trade deal that Trump reached with China in early 2020, the two sides are required to hold talks every six months, but the most recent deadlines have been missed.

Asked if the US might remove some of the tariffs that Trump imposed on imports from China as part of his trade war, Tai said it “hinged on the conversations that we have with China” and the assessment of the phase 1 deal. The Biden administration has previously signalled that it is in no rush to remove the tariffs. 

The deal paused a rapidly escalating trade war that rattled global markets and led to billions of dollars of tariffs on traded goods. Under the terms of the deal, China promised to significantly boost its purchases of soyabeans and energy products.

China agreed to buy $200bn more of US goods and services than it did in 2017, before the start of the dispute, over a two-year period to the end of 2021. Trade analysts have been measuring Beijing’s progress towards that goal, and data suggest that the country is well short of meeting its commitment.

According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, China purchased just 59 per cent of US exports under its expected prorated target for calendar year 2020, importing $94bn of products covered under the deal, compared to an expected target of $159bn. Early data for 2021 shows purchases are still lagging behind expected levels.

Chad Bown, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute, said companies faced “tremendous” uncertainty because of the trade approach taken by Trump, and that they were looking for signals from the Biden administration on its intended approach.

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