US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer declined to state publicly whether Washington would lift the tariffs it has so far imposed on China if both sides reach a deal (WIN MCNAMEE)
Washington (AFP) – Washington’s top trade official on Tuesday said the United States and China are likely to conclude their trade negotiations within “weeks” — but a successful outcome is not assured.
“Our hope is that we’re in the final weeks of an agreement but I’m not predicting one,” US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in Senate testimony.
“We can’t predict success at this point but we are working hard.”
Eight months into their sprawling trade war, US and Chinese officials have alternated between projecting optimism and warning that they have much to do before reaching a final outcome.
The two sides have exchanged tariffs on more than $360 billion in two-way trade, but Lighthizer on Tuesday declined to state publicly whether Washington would lift the tariffs it has imposed so far if both sides reach a deal.
US officials are demanding far-reaching changes to Chinese industrial policy — including an end to massive state intervention in markets, subsidies and the alleged theft of American technology — and insist that any agreement must be enforceable.
Lighthizer said Washington would reserve the right to impose them should China fail to keep up its end of the bargain.
“We have to maintain the right to be able to — whatever happens to the current tariffs — to raise tariffs in situations where there’s violations of the agreement,” he said.
“That’s the core. If we don’t do that, then none of it makes any difference.”
Democrats have accused President Donald Trump of going soft in the trade talks and moving toward a superficial agreement rather than tackling long-standing problems in trade with China.
But Lighthizer said Tuesday the agreement would either have teeth “or the president won’t agree to the agreement.”
– A ‘stalemate’ with Brussels –
During four rounds of shuttle diplomacy since December, officials announced that China had agreed to resume or increase purchase of US agricultural goods, with Trump announcing he would likely seal any deal at a “signing summit” with Chinese President Xi Jinping late this month.
But the White House has since said there is no date yet for such a meeting.
Lighthizer said he and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had spoken with Chinese officials by telephone on Monday evening and that another call was set for Wednesday.
“We’re either gonna have a good result or we’re gonna have a bad result before too long but I’m not setting a specific time frame,” he said.
Lighthizer also said the United States would press ahead with efforts to reform the World Trade Organization.
Washington has blocked the appointment of new judges to the appellate branch of a WTO dispute panel, which could force it to shut down by the end of next year.
US officials say the appellate body has improperly reversed the factual findings of trade arbitration panels.
But Lighthizer said the United States and the EU were at a deadlock over whether to include agriculture in their current trade talks.
Brussels has imposed counter-tariffs on billions in US exports in response to Trump’s decision last year to put steep duties on steel and aluminum exports.
But European officials refuse to include discussion of agriculture trade in future talks to resolve the impasse.
“The United States can’t have a trade agreement with Europe that doesn’t deal with agriculture. Their view is that they can’t have one that does,” said Lighthizer.
“We’re at a stalemate. We’ll see how that develops.”
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