March 20, 2018 / 3:15 AM / a month ago

China's premier hopes trade war can be averted, pledges more open economy

BEIJING (Reuters) - Voicing hopes that Beijing and the United States could avoid a trade war, Premier Li Keqiang told the close of the annual parliament session that China would open its economy further, so that foreign and Chinese firms can compete on an equal footing.

Fears of a global trade war mounted after U.S. President Donald Trump’s imposed hefty import tariffs on steel and aluminum earlier this month and, according to sources in Washington, the United States is set to unveil new tariffs specifically targeting China by the end of this week.

“I hope both China and the U.S. will act rationally, and not be led by emotions, and avoid a trade war,” Li told reporters in a televised news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Those hopes would be damaged if, as sources say, Washington goes ahead with plans for new tariffs on up to $60 billion worth of Chinese technology and consumer goods annually, in a move to fulfill Trump’s campaign promises to get tough on China and its trade practices.

Earlier on Tuesday, riding high after China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament unanimously re-elected him and set the stage for him to rule indefinitely, President Xi Jinping warned self-ruled Taiwan it would face the “punishment of history” for any attempt at separatism.

The warning came just days after Trump angered Beijing by signing into law legislation encouraging closer ties between Taiwan and the United States.

But for the world, the potential fall out from any trade conflict between its two biggest economies posed the more pressing danger.

Without going into detail, Li told his once a year press conference that China will improve access to its services and manufacturing sectors while further lowering import tariffs, including those on cancer-related drugs.

“China’s economy has been so integrated with the world’s, that closing China’s door would mean blocking our way for development,” Li said.

“China’s aim is to ensure that both domestic and foreign firms, and companies under all kinds of ownership structure, will be able to compete on fair terms in China’s large market.”

TAIWAN WARNING

During his half-hour closing speech, President Xi was heavy on aspirational themes and he delivered a strong message on Taiwan, which is claimed by China as part of its territory.

“Any actions and tricks to split China are doomed to failure and will meet with the people’s condemnation and the punishment of history,” he said, to loud applause from the almost 3,000 parliamentary delegates.

China has been infuriated by Trump’s signing legislation that encourages the United States to send senior officials to Taiwan to meet Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa.

Xi made repeated references to a resurgent nation of 1.3 billion people which would “ride the mighty east wind of the new era” and was on the cusp of matching the country’s greatest achievements in its long history.

At the same time he reiterated increasing global concerns over China’s rise were unjustified and added: “Only those who are in the habit of threatening others will see everyone else as a threat.”

“We will not impose our will on anyone.”

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is seen on a camera viewfinder at the news conference following the closing session of the National People's Congress (NPC), at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

TRADE TENSIONS

When Xi’s top economic adviser Liu He visited Washington recently, the Trump administration pressed him to find ways to reduce China’s $375 billion trade surplus with the United States.

“We are unwilling to see a big trade deficit, not only with the U.S.,” Li said. “We hope trade will be balanced.”

In his remarks, Li said that as China widens access to its markets, there will be no forced transfers of technology, and China will better protect intellectual property rights.

Trump says Beijing has forced U.S. companies to transfer their intellectual property to China as a cost of doing business there, though China has insisted that technology transfers are not a condition of gaining market access.

A source who had direct knowledge of the Trump administration’s thinking told Reuters last week that the tariffs expected to be announced this week would chiefly target information technology, consumer electronics and telecoms and other products benefiting from U.S. intellectual property.

But they could be much broader and hit consumer products such as clothing and footwear, with a list eventually running to 100 products, this source said.

“We hope the U.S. could ease restrictions on high-tech or high value-added product exports,” Li said.

“We will strictly protect intellectual property. We hope this important means for balancing China-U.S. trade will not be missed, otherwise we will lose a chance to make money.”

ECONOMIC TARGETS

Before the press conference, Li introduced China’s four new vice premiers, including Liu He, widely regarded as China’s new economic tsar. But adhering to protocol, it was the premier who did all the talking.

Li said China was confident of achieving its 2018 economic targets. The government aims to expand its economy by around 6.5 percent this year, having easily surpassed the same target in 2017.

China’s financial sector was in good shape and banks have enough provisions, Li said, adding that regulators would take “resolute measures” to tackle financial risks.

The Chinese central bank was being given responsibility for drafting important laws covering the banking and insurance sector, with regulation over the $42 trillion sector becoming more streamlined and tighter.

And Li said he was willing to consider a formal visit to Japan, amid signs of improving ties between the two nations.

Slideshow (8 Images)

Tokyo has repeatedly pressed Beijing to do more to help rein in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. China says it is committed to enforcing U.N. sanctions but that all parties need to do more to reduce tensions and restart talks.

Additional reporting by Lusha Zhang, Elias Glenn, Stella Qiu, Christian Shepherd and Ben Blanchard; Writing by Ryan Woo and Tony Munroe; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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