China, U.S. stand by Trump trade deal as coronavirus pushes relations to worst in decades

Trump said Sunday that he could “terminate” the deal if China did not meet its obligations to increase its purchases of U.S. goods this year by $76.7 billion from the 2017 level. But Chinese imports from the United States have declined in recent months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc on economies worldwide, raising doubts about whether Beijing could meet its targets.

The U.S. readout of the call, attended by Trade Rep. Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, was more explicit than the Chinese version and said both sides had “agreed” that “both countries fully expect to meet their obligations under the agreement in a timely manner.”

The statement from the USTR said that both sides “agreed that good progress is being made on creating the governmental infrastructures necessary to make the agreement a success.”

The call was the first dialogue between top-level trade officials since the partial agreement was signed in the White House East Room on Jan. 15. The coronavirus, which at that time was already sweeping across Wuhan, burst into full view the following week as Chinese officials finally acknowledged its infectious potential and scrambled to seal off central Hubei Province.

China’s handling of the outbreak, including repeated statements in early January downplaying the virus’s threat, has been bitterly criticized by hawkish members of the U.S. administration who have floated the possibility of seeking financial compensation or imposing a fresh round of steep tariffs that would extract hundreds of billions of dollars from China.

In response, Beijing has accused the U.S. administration of “shifting blame” to distract from its own failures to contain the pandemic and launched a salvo of unprecedented, personal attacks in state media against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The U.S. death toll surpassed 70,000 this week while China’s topped out at under 5,000.

The relatively conciliatory call between the trade representatives came against the backdrop of one of the most acrimonious periods in U.S.-China relations.

In March, Chinese officials around the world disseminated fringe theories that the virus was carried into China by U.S. soldiers. Trump and Pompeo then hit back by suggesting that the pathogen leaked from a Wuhan lab — a theory that is not substantiated by current evidence, according to the majority of scientific researchers, and U.S. intelligence and defense officials.

On Wednesday, Trump said he would check within a week on China’s progress in buying U.S. goods. The following day, the China Daily newspaper lamented that “the rapport that seemed to have developed between the two countries during their trade talks is now just a distant memory.”

Even if China steps up its purchases in some sectors, it’s unclear if it will meet other commitments.

During the first quarter, China’s economy shrank by 6.8 percent as the country shut down and exports dried up. In April, imports fell 14.2 percent, more than what economists forecast.

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