Beijing has cast doubt on whether trade talks are set to resume, with its foreign ministry contradicting US President Donald Trump’s claim that China had sought a return to the negotiating table and state media saying the countries were in touch only at a “technical level”.
But there has since been no indication of progress on that front and the Chinese foreign ministry said at a regular briefing on Monday that it was “not aware of the phone calls over the weekend”.
Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the state-run tabloid Global Times, also wrote on Twitter that the two sides had maintained contact at a “technical level”, which “doesn’t have [the] significance that President Trump suggested”.
A commentary published on Tuesday by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily advised the United States not to underestimate China’s determination to fight back.
“China will do what it has said,” the commentary said, referring to Beijing’s tariff measures. “Any attempts to force China to make concessions through extreme pressure will be in vain.”
Question marks over the state of the trade talks – whether negotiations were to resume at a high level, and whether China was eager for a deal or Trump had exaggerated this to boost markets – remained after the countries exchanged new tariff threats last week, dampening hopes for a trade agreement in the short term.
Confusion over the state of China-US relations deepened when Trump last week called Chinese President Xi Jinping an enemy, then on Monday praised him as a great leader.
“Sorry, it’s the way I negotiate,” Trump told reporters at the Group of 7 meeting in Biarritz, France.
Last week, China said it would levy retaliatory tariffs of 5 to 10 per cent on US$75 billion worth of US goods. The Trump administration responded by announcing a tariff increase from 25 to 30 per cent on US$250 billion of Chinese goods, and from 10 to 15 per cent on US$300 billion worth of Chinese products.
“We are willing to resolve the issue through consultations and cooperation with a calm attitude and resolutely oppose the escalation of the trade war,” he said.
Trump, known for his use of hyperbole, cited Liu’s remarks as evidence that China wanted a trade deal. When speaking to reporters, Trump also appeared to misidentify Liu’s seniority, describing him as the No 2 politician in China under Xi.
Although he is vice-premier and Xi’s top economic aide, Liu does not sit on the Politburo Standing Committee, the elite seven-member decision-making body, and ranks lower than Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Vice-President Wang Qishan.
“The vice-chairman of China – do you get any higher than that, other than President Xi?” Trump asked. “The vice-chairman made the statement that he wants to make a deal, that he wants to see a call made, mister, he wants it all to happen.”
There is no position of vice-chairman in the Chinese political system.
According to the Chinese commerce ministry, the last high-level phone calls between Chinese and US trade negotiators took place on August 13 between Liu, Lighthizer and Mnuchin.