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Administration Officials Wrap Up 2 Days Of Trade Talks In Beijing

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Under the cloud of a looming trade war, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other top administration officials ended talks in Beijing today.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Mnuchin described the talks as, quote, "a very good conversation." China's state media reported this morning that some kind of agreement was reached but that big differences remain.

GREENE: Let's talk more about what may have been achieved or not with Amy Celico. She was a China specialist at the U.S. Trade Representative's Office under President George W. Bush.

Thanks so much for joining us this morning.

AMY CELICO: Great to be here.

GREENE: So the U.S. is making all these demands of China - for China to stop stealing intellectual property, to reduce the trade imbalance. President Trump made all of these tariff threats with these goals in mind and then sends this delegation. Do you think they made any headway here?

CELICO: Well, I'm relieved that they agreed to continue talking. That had not been on the table late last year, early this year when the Trump administration was basically saying to the Chinese government, you know what bad behavior you are engaged in. You need to stop it. And if you don't, we're going to impose unilateral actions such as tariffs against your imports into the United States. So an agreement to hold quarterly consultations following this is a good one, I think.

GREENE: Wow. So the bar for success...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...Is so low that if the talks are going to continue, that is a big win for the United States.

CELICO: That's absolutely right. Markets and analysts looking at U.S.-China relations were all very, very pessimistic that we were going to achieve any kind of real breakthrough in this first set of real dialogue between the U.S. and China in some time. And so the fact that the result of the meeting wasn't slapping unilateral measures in place, as had been threatened in advance of the meeting, I think is a good one.

GREENE: OK. So Trump's tariff threats, it sounds like you could argue, got the Chinese to the table but also caused, I mean, a lot of disruption. The price of steel went up, which has concerned a lot of companies in the United States. So what do you do now if you're President Trump? Do you keep the pressure on and keep making these threats to keep the Chinese at the table? What's best now?

CELICO: Well, I think - I do agree that the president really has put China on its back foot in some ways because he's been so aggressive in threatening unilateral action rather than saying we can continue to talk about these long-standing issues in the bilateral relationship. And so the Chinese did have to respond. You will note, though, coming out of Beijing, that the only thing the Chinese have said so far is major disagreements continue, rather than there's been any kind of agreement on a way forward.

There's an agreement to continue to talk about major disagreements. And so the Trump administration, I think, will continue to make threats. It's not just about tariffs. Of course, there's investment restrictions. There are other measures that the U.S. could take against China that continue to pressure China. At the same time, we need Chinese imports into the United States. And American exporters don't want their products to face high tariffs as some of them already have begun to face due to China retaliating against the Trump administration's unilateral threats.

And so both sides really do need to talk about resolution of some of these long-standing issues. Three-quarters of American companies surveyed in China this past year say they feel less welcome in this market. There are real issues for U.S. companies operating in China, China's closed rather than more open environment. And so I think the Trump administration is right to take action. The Chinese are very reluctant to make concessions here.

GREENE: Well - and you keep using the term unilateral, which makes me think about some of President Trump's critics who have said some of his threats on - tariff threats with Europe, with Canada, with Mexico - it's actually antagonizing some U.S. allies who could be crucial in helping the United States deal with China.

CELICO: That has really been an issue for many of us who believe that in order for us to make progress with China, we can't go it alone. We absolutely need Japan, the European Union, Canada, others to join with us in standing up to Chinese unfair trade practices and pressuring them to make changes to their policies. But our unilateral actions, I think, are making that more difficult. And so absolutely, I encourage the Trump administration - many of us do - to look to our allies and treat them well as we look to ask for their cooperation with China.

GREENE: Amy Celico, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

CELICO: Thank you.

GREENE: She is a principal at the Albright Stonebridge consulting group. She was also a China trade specialist under President George W. Bush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.