Chinese president Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump both insisted on Friday they would resist pressure to give ground on a trade deal that Washington’s leader said could be “very close”.
The comments from Xi and Trump came six weeks after the announcement of a “phase one” bargain, which appears no closer to becoming a reality as the two sides tussle over tariffs and China’s future purchases of US farm exports.
In Beijing on Friday, Xi said China wants a deal but is “not afraid” to “fight back” if necessary.
Trump’s reply came several hours later in a freewheeling live dial-in to Fox News in which he told on-air hosts the deal was “potentially very close” but that Xi was under greater pressure to strike a bargain.
“He wants to make a deal much more than I want to make it. I’m not anxious to make it,” Trump said.
When it comes to Hong Kong, he said, he is balancing competing interests, stopping short of pledging to sign new US legislation to support the restive semi-autonomous city’s democracy movement.
US regulators on Friday also turned up the pressure on Chinese telecoms firms ZTE and Huawei, branding them threats to national security and barring them from multi-billion-dollar subsidy programmes for wireless equipment and services.
The Huawei controversy in particular has landed squarely in the middle of the trade conflict, raising the question of whether Trump could offer some concessions on access to the US market to grease wheels in the trade negotiations.
The world’s two biggest economies have been locked in a bruising trade conflict for more than a year, hitting each other with volleys of tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of goods.
China ‘not going to budge’
“As we always said, we don’t want to start the trade war but we are not afraid,” Xi told former US officials and other foreign dignitaries at a meeting at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
“When necessary we will fight back but we have been working actively to try not to have a trade war,” he told the group, which included former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former US treasury secretary Henry Paulson and Trump’s former economic adviser Gary Cohn.
China has called for a rollback of existing tariffs, to which Trump has said he did not agree. US officials want large purchases of US farm exports.
The Chinese leader said the trade talks “may affect the future prospects of the world economy” and China holds a “positive attitude”.
Enodo Economics chief economist Diana Choyleva said Xi’s comments do not mean that Beijing is about to go on the offensive but show that it is “not going to budge”.
Trump has fostered distrust among the Chinese, making Xi “very determined that there is no point to really give up much”, Choyleva told AFP at the New Economy Forum.
Trump launched his trade war in March last year, demanding that China end practices widely seen as unfair – such as forced technology transfers from US firms, and massive subsidies given to Chinese firms.
Xi said he told International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva – who met him earlier – that China will continue on the path of financial reform and opening but “the precondition is that we will ensure security of our nation’s financial sovereignty”.
Xi warned that a “technological iron curtain” would “affect the future prospect of humanity”.
Paulson, who is the former US treasury chief, told Xi that 5G wireless technology could be “either a potential area of conflict or cooperation for China and US”.
“I believe key to minimising conflict is if we can develop shared standards for emerging technologies,” he said.
Kissinger, who warned at the forum on Thursday that the trade war could snowball into armed conflict, told Xi that “our nations have to cooperate if there is to be a prosperous international order”.
Kissinger also met with China’s Central Military Commission vice-chairman Xu Qiliang, the state-owned Xinhua News Agency reported, which made no mention of the other US officials.
Sino-US military ties “should be a stabiliser for bilateral relations,” Xu said, according to Xinhua, adding that both sides should “strengthen strategic communication. . . to avoid misunderstandings and misjudgement”.