October 30, 2019 / 4:08 PM / a month ago

U.S. agricultural sales to China will 'take some time to scale up': Mnuchin

RIYADH (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday that it will take time for Chinese purchases of U.S. agricultural goods to “scale up” to the $40 billion to $50 billion annual level touted by President Donald Trump if the two sides can seal a “Phase 1” trade deal.

FILE PHOTO: Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin answers questions from the press after an interview on CNBC on the North Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 12, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger.

Mnuchin told Reuters in an interview in Saudi Arabia that the $40 billion to $50 billion target is “a lot,” but is based on “very specific discussions” of product purchase commitments by China.

“This is built on a bottom-up basis of both what we think we can deliver and what they think they need,” Mnuchin said on the sidelines of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. “It’s a one-year target, but obviously it’s going to take some time to scale up.”

The $40 billion-$50 billion target is twice the amount of farm goods the United States exported to China in 2017, the last year unaffected by dueling tariffs of the nearly 16-month trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

Some people briefed on the talks have said they expect the Phase 1 deal to start with China’s agriculture purchases to simply resume at the pre-trade war rates.

China has increased some purchases of soybeans and pork in recent weeks but these remain far below previous levels with soybean imports coming mostly from Brazil and Argentina.

SIGNING VENUE GONE

Mnuchin said U.S. and Chinese negotiators were working to try to agree on a text in time for Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to sign in the coming weeks.

Their goal had been to sign the deal in mid-November at an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Santiago, Chile. But Chilean President Sebastian Pinera canceled that summit on Wednesday due to worsening protests in the country.

“We’ve obviously just seen the news and we’re considering options,” a Treasury official said after the interview.

Mnuchin said he does not anticipate he and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer would take another trip to Beijing to try to nail down the text, as phone calls have been productive and will continue.

The Treasury Secretary is in the Middle East and India through early next week and Lighthizer is holding frequent meetings with U.S. lawmakers to secure approval of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal.

CHINA MARKET OPENING PLEDGES

Mnuchin said he “appreciated” comments on Tuesday by China’s vice Commerce Minister, Wang Shouwen, that China will eliminate foreign investment restrictions on financial services and many other sectors.

Wang also said that China would “neither explicitly nor implicitly” force foreign investors and companies to transfer technologies to Chinese firms, addressing a major U.S. concern. .

“We are encouraged by his comments and that’s consistent with our agreement,” Mnuchin said. “We’ve been talking a lot about forced technology transfer and we appreciate those comments.”

Mnuchin also dismissed suggestions that the new access for U.S. firms to China’s financial services market in the Phase 1 agreement would be similar to that contemplated in the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) negotiations conducted by the Obama administration as late as 2016.

“This is a brand new agreement,” he said. The BIT “wasn’t a starting point, that wasn’t anything that we really paid any attention to,” he added.

Reporting by David Lawder; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio

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