'Significant progress' expected in China trade talks: US official

Washington (AFP) –


The United States hopes to make "significant progress" during high-stakes trade talks with Chinese officials this week, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday.

Beijing and Washington have a month remaining in a 90-day truce declared in December before US tariffs on hundreds of billions in Chinese exports are due to increase sharply -- a prospect economists say could help knock the wind out of an already-faltering global economy.

The countries also are locked in confrontation over Washington's sweeping prosecution of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei for alleged sanctions violations.

While officials insist the case is unrelated, it is casting a shadow over the talks, with Beijing accusing Washington of a "smear" and "political violations."

"I expect we will make significant progress this week" on securing greater access to the Chinese market for American companies, Mnuchin told Fox Business Network.

The two sides will meet for a second round of talks Wednesday and Thursday, and Mnuchin said President Donald Trump is due to participate at the end.

Washington is seeking an end to forced joint ventures and transfers of American intellectual property and insisting that any agreement have teeth to ensure the parties abide by it.

But Mnuchin said there was no connection between the Huawei matter and the trade talks.

"Let me be clear. Those are separate issues," Mnuchin said. "I found out about that yesterday when it was announced. So those are not part of trade discussions."

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also insisted on Tuesday that the Huawei case is unrelated to the trade negotiations.

US officials have alternated between saying the two sides are "miles and miles" from reaching an agreement, and expressing optimism that common ground can be reached.

The world's two largest economies last year exchanged tariffs on more than $360 billion in two-way trade.

Negotiators face severe time pressure as US duty rates on $200 billion in Chinese goods are scheduled to more than double to 25 percent on March 2 unless Trump decides otherwise.

Mnuchin also said he expected that reimbursements from income tax payments -- which provide an annual boost to crucial consumer spending -- would be paid as usual despite the five-week partial government shutdown, which ended last week.

"We're taking tax returns. We will be ready for tax refunds. We will have the phones re-staffed," he said.