The Chinese government has presented an offer to the United States to try to push forward stalled trade talks before the leaders of the two economic superpowers meet at the end of this month, according to two people briefed on the discussions.
The opening bid falls short of many of the core demands the White House has repeatedly detailed as must-haves in trade talks with Beijing, including addressing technology transfers and intellectual property theft, according to one of the people briefed. Instead, the proposal has been described as a rehash of previous commitments Chinese leaders have publicly announced, like selectively lifting tariffs.
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"What they are offering is not new," this person said. "I think the two sides remain at an impasse. The channels are now open again, but there's a lot of work to get to — whether it's a modest de-escalation or ceasefire."
Beijing's proposal comes after US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke by phone on Friday to jump start trade discussions ahead of an expected meeting between the two countries' leaders. US President Donald Trump has said he will have a "good meeting" with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires later this month.
Asked about the offer at a weekly news briefing in Beijing on Thursday, Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng would only reiterate comments from earlier in the week that "high-level communications on the economic and trade front have resumed" following a phone conversation between Trump and Xi two weeks ago.
"Teams from both sides are in close contact to carefully implement the consensus reached by the two leaders in their phone call," Gao said.
A US Treasury Department spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment late Wednesday.
It remained unclear in recent days whether the Chinese government would be willing to present any offer ahead of the planned dinner between the two leaders in Argentina.
The United States was demanding that the Chinese come up with a clear offer before negotiations on a trade deal could start, while Beijing had been reluctant, seeking talks ahead of making any firm proposals.
Both sides have been working toward a path to end the escalating trade war, which has left investors jittery over its impact on consumers and companies in the world's top two economies.
"What the offer did is now create an opportunity for the US government to respond," said the person briefed.
Still, the reformulated offer — which includes easing restrictions on foreign investment and eliminating requirements for joint ventures with Chinese partners in some sectors — raises the stakes over whether the two sides will be able to strike a framework agreement in the two weeks ahead of the G20 summit.
"They have a lot of work to do and they're going to have to find a way to make up for lost time," added the person, who described the bid as not "forward leaning enough" to push the negotiating process to a positive outcome.
The offer was first reported by Bloomberg News.
Even Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross raised doubts earlier this week over whether the governments could reach a deal anytime soon.
"The issue with China is not just tariffs," Ross said at a Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit. "If it was just tariffs, I think we could work it out very, very, very quickly."
"The real issue is intellectual property rights, forced technology transfers, industrial espionage, that kind of thing. We can't tolerate abuses of that sort," he said.
Top US officials have sent conflicting signals in recent weeks.
The Trump administration has been divided between free traders — including those with Wall Street backgrounds like Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow — and hardliners like US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.
Just last week, Navarro took a shot at Wall Street, warning "globalist elites" against meddling with the Trump administration's policy on China.
"If and when there is a deal, it will be on President Donald J. Trump's terms — not Wall Street terms," Navarro, a former economics professor, said during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Speaking to reporters on the White House lawn Tuesday, Kudlow said that Navarro "misspoke" and "wasn't authorized" to speak on the matter.
The Trump administration has already slapped tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese products since July. The tariffs on $200 billion of those goods are set to increase to 25% from 10% on January 1, which would further escalate the conflict.
China retaliated with tariffs on $110 billion of US products and is likely to respond with more if the United States goes ahead with the increase at the start of January.
Trump has made it a priority to take an aggressive stance against China for what he says are unfair trade practices, including intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. He's threatened to escalate the trade war further by imposing tariffs on all the remaining goods that China sells to the United States.
Many American manufacturers, farmers and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say they appreciate the administration's efforts to change China's economic policies. But some argue the tariffs aren't the best way to address the problems. They pose a dilemma for US importers who must decide whether to absorb the higher cost of the goods or pass it on to consumers, and some exporters are hurting from China's retaliatory tariffs.
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