Trade negotiations between China and the United States continue early next week in Washington D.C., but analysts say after the first round, the differences between the two sides are huge. Some believe the differences are so fundamental and big that an escalation of tariffs is unavoidable.
According to a widely circulated copy of Washington’s demands, President Donald Trump’s delegation not only asked Beijing to cut its trade deficit with the United States by $200 billion by 2020, but to also sharply lower tariffs and government subsidies of advanced technologies.
Beijing wants the United States to no longer oppose granting China market economy status at the World Trade Organization, amend an export ban against Chinese tech company ZTE Corp and open American government procurement to Chinese technology and services among other demands.
View to escalation
Scott Kennedy, a China scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the first round made it clear just how far apart the U.S. and China are in their views of what's fair, what they want and expect the other side to do.
“I think we're still headed toward escalation with both sides adopting tariffs in the next few weeks, but at least now we know what the fight is about,” Kennedy said. “It's about whether or not China should be a market economy, or what you know whether it should be able to maintain its state capitalist system without any constraints.”
China joined the WTO in December of 2001 as a non-market economy and after 15 years it was expected the granting of the status as a market economy would naturally follow — along with its opening up.
But that is not what has happened, and the United States and European Union have refused to grant China market economy status.
Beijing insists it should be regarded as a market economy regardless of whether other countries believe it fits the definition. Under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has moved to assert greater control over business and the economy.
Competition vs. compensation
It has also become increasingly clear that China’s definition of reform and that of the West are strikingly different.
In an interview with VOA earlier this year, William Zarit, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce, said that while many used to assume China would continue to carry out Western style economic reforms initiated in the early 2000s, that is no longer the case.
“In the last four or five years, we’ve seen that reform has taken a different direction, that the Chinese economy is on a different trajectory and that is more support for state-owned enterprises,” Zarit said. “And when I hear reforms now, it is more about making state-owned enterprises more efficient and not necessarily competitive in a fully market-based economy.”
But Song Hong, an economist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argues that China has fulfilled its WTO obligations and it is the United States and European Union that have broken their promises to grant the country market economy status.
He said Washington’s demands to slash the trade deficit by $100 billion a year does not make economic sense. He also said the demand for China to lower tariffs and put the two countries on equal footing is impossible.
“The market in China is of course not as open as the U.S. market because China remains a developing country, which is no match to the U.S.,” Song Hong said. “The per capita income level in China around $10,000 vs. the U.S.'s some $50,000. How can both countries be equal?”
Talks as clock ticks
Some Chinese state media reports have tried to sound upbeat about the meetings focusing on the two sides agreed to keep talking, despite their differences.
On Monday, the White House announced a Chinese delegation led by Liu He, China’s vice premier and a top aide to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, will visit the United States early next week.
At the same time, however, the clock is ticking on U.S. threats to implement up to $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods. A day after Liu arrives in Washington, there will be a public hearing to discuss tariffs and the Trump administration’s investigation into China’s trade policies and practices.
If no agreement is reached by May 23, Washington would be well within its right to go ahead with the tariffs, analysts note. To which, China has promised to promptly reply.
Kennedy said that while the United States has used unilateral penalties in the past, this time around the chances of escalation are a lot higher.
“Not only are the disagreements deeply fundamental, China is much more powerful and ambitious than it used to be. And so it's not likely to cave easily,” he said.
Brian Kopczynski contributed to this report.