US, China talks raise optimism on eve of new trade tariffs

Washington (AFP) –


US officials are set to hold talks on Wednesday with Chinese and Mexican negotiators, fueling cautious optimism that further trade confrontations might be averted even as a new round of tariffs is about to hit.

These will be the first formal discussions with China since June on the spiraling and multifaceted trade war between the world's two largest economies.

Meanwhile, US and Mexican trade officials are expected to wrap up weeks of discussions on the rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement that could pave the way for Canada to rejoin the talks and move to a final agreement.

President Donald Trump has pushed aggressive trade actions to lower the US trade deficit that he equates with stealing from Americans. But US trading partners have retaliated aggressively, which is hurting American farmers, manufacturers and consumers.

US businesses have become increasingly concerned about the tariffs that are raising prices for manufacturers and could hurt the economy, although the prospect of a negotiated solution buoyed Wall Street this week.

But even as the talks begin, another $16 billion in Chinese goods will face new US tariffs starting Thursday at 12:01 am (0401 GMT), completing the first round of $50 billion in products targeted in the dispute over what US officials say is the rampant theft of American technology.

China has said it will react immediately with tariffs on the same amount of US goods, targeting iconic products like Harley motorcycles, bourbon and orange juice, among hundreds of others.

And still pending are the possibility for new duties on another $200 billion in Chinese goods, which are the subject of public hearings this week, as well as Trump's proposed 25 percent taxes on all auto imports to protect the US industry.

- US business impact -

Senior US Treasury official David Malpass will lead the two days of talks with China's Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen, the deputy representative on international trade negotiations. There has been no word on the topics to be discussed.

Trump said earlier this week that he was not expecting much from the discussions.

"We are a country that has been ripped off by anybody and we are not going to be ripped off anymore," Trump said at a campaign rally in West Virginia on Tuesday.

"It has to be a two-way street. We only have one-way streets not only with China but everybody."

Thousands of large and small companies and industry groups have urged the Trump administration to reconsider the tariffs which some say could put them out of business.

But so far the Trump administration has largely been deaf to the complaints, as only a handful of product lines have been shielded from the punitive duties.

The administration already was forced to announce a $12 billion aid program for farmers hurt by the trade wars, as US agricultural products, like soybeans, were an easy target for China and others.

- NAFTA rewrite -

Efforts to revise NAFTA seem a bit more hopeful, after USTR Robert Lighthizer told Trump last week he hoped to get a breakthrough in the talks in coming days on the issues with Mexico.

Mexico's Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said on Wednesday they could be finalized "in the next two hours or next two days," according to press reports.

US publication Politico cited sources saying the White House was planning a "handshake" announcement ceremony for Thursday but Mexico has all along stressed that there will be no deal until after Canada rejoins the discussions.

The office of Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has not said when she would return to Washington.

The three countries have been negotiating for a year to salvage the trade pact that Trump says was a "disaster" for the United States.