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Chinese trade chiefs scan Washington for elusive dealmakers

Beijing’s efforts to start peace talks has been tested by ascent of economic hawks

With the world’s two largest economies on the brink of a $100bn trade war, the Chinese government now hopes that peace talks with US President Donald Trump will finally begin in earnest. Beijing has entrusted vice-premier Liu He, President Xi Jinping’s leading economic adviser and point person for Sino-US relations, with negotiating a settlement that will allow China and the US to back down from imposing punitive tariffs on bilateral trade flows worth about $100bn.

He will be supported by Wang Qishan, the feared former head of Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and troubleshooter who was last month appointed vice-president. But Mr Xi’s most trusted lieutenants have two important questions. Who is Mr Trump’s Liu He, and is Washington really willing to talk?According to Chinese and US officials, Mr Liu last year identified Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive and Mr Trump’s first national economic adviser, and Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary, as conduits into the administration. Mr Liu and Mr Wang have close connections and are most comfortable dealing with senior US financial and business figures such as Mr Cohn and Mr Ross.Mr Ross lost influence within the Trump administration last summer after he negotiated a list of concessions from China that was rejected by his boss. The Chinese government has been further confounded by the recent departure of Mr Cohn and the rising power of “China hawks” such as Robert Lighthizer, the US Trade Representative, John Bolton, the incoming national security adviser, and Peter Navarro, trade adviser.

In recent weeks Mr Liu has been communicating with Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury secretary and another Goldman Sachs alumnus in an effort to avoid an all-out trade war. But while Mr Mnuchin remains influential and is widely regarded by Chinese officials as a moderate “internationalist”, he has much less influence over day to day trade issues than Mr Lighthizer.“Lighthizer is the person driving the bus on these tariffs and he’s not really talking to anyone in China,” said one person briefed on the two countries’ discussions.Mr Lighthizer, who cut his trade teeth in the 1980s negotiating with Japan as a senior official in the Reagan administration, has long pushed for a more muscular and unilateral approach to China. The World Trade Organization and global trade rules are ill-equipped to referee China’s rise, he argues. Mr Lighthizer and other China hawks have also argued for months against talks with Beijing. Others such as Mr Navarro, a former academic behind the 2013 book and film Death by China, see a fight as inevitable and contend the real goal should be the repatriation of US companies’ supply chains that are now too dependent on China for parts.Mr Xi’s “Made in China 2025” initiative to lead the world in key industries such as artificial intelligence and robotics represents an existential threat to the US economy, they argue. As such the Trump administration needs to fundamentally rewrite the relationship between the world’s two largest economies.“We’re trying to basically win the battle over the emerging industries of the future,” Mr Navarro said in a radio interview on Wednesday. “If they basically seize that high ground technologically by stealing from us we will not have a future as a country in terms of our economy and our national security.”The Trump administration argues its latest tariffs are aimed at stopping Beijing’s practice of forcing the transfer of technology to joint venture partners as a condition of doing business in China, something foreign investors have long grumbled about. Chinese officials, who on Wednesday outlined their own retaliatory list of more than 100 US exports such as soybeans, aircraft and cars, deny such policies violate global trade rules.“The [Trump] administration is heavily influenced by ideologues [who] can’t fathom how a system that is not free market-based like the US could possibly survive and deliver for its people,” said Tim Clissold, an experienced China investor. “The only possible explanation [for them] is theft.”

The USTR’s China tariff list was released just days before Mr Xi is expected to address the Boao Forum for Asia, a Chinese government-hosted version of Davos. While Chinese officials have said privately that Mr Xi is likely to reveal important new reform measures at the forum, which opens on Sunday, the trade hostilities will bolster the position of hardliners who argue against making any concessions to the US.For their part, US officials have been frustrated by what they see as their Chinese counterparts’ refusal to implement reforms first promised by Mr Xi five years ago and ensure a truly level playing field for foreign investors. “They need to show good faith by taking action based on their own rhetoric,” said one senior US official. “It is a structural fact [that] China is not a liberalised economy.”China’s efforts at engagement have not gone well so far. Before heading to Washington to defuse rising trade tension, Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, consulted Terry Branstad, the US ambassador to Beijing and former Iowa governor, who advised him to offer real gifts and bring with him an ambitious timetable for significant market-opening reforms. According to three people briefed on the trip, Mr Yang ignored that advice and went to Washington on February 8 only with promises of reforms to be implemented over three to five years. That set the tone for what has since then been only a halfhearted dialogue between senior Chinese and US officials led by Mr Liu and Mr Mnuchin. As Mr Liu met senior US officials on March 2, Mr Trump announced he would impose steel and aluminium tariffs that, though broad-based, were aimed primarily at Chinese overproduction of the two metals. And with that he fired what looks increasingly like the opening shot in a trade war.