|U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, left, listens as Chinese Vice Premier Liu He talks while they line up for a group photo at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China February 15, 2019. Reuters-Yonhap|
By Wendy Wu
Lighthizer, who is in charge of the U.S. side of the trade talks, said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday that the Trump administration's hope was that "we are in the final weeks of having an agreement ― but I'm not predicting one".
"There still are major, major issues that have to be resolved," he added, "and if those issues are not resolved in a way that's beneficial to the United States, we will not have an agreement".
Lighthizer said he would hold another telephone negotiation with his Chinese counterparts on Wednesday, after a phone conversation with them lasted two hours Monday night.
Chinese state media reported that Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He had a telephone conversation with Lighthizer and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at 7pm on Monday, discussing some key issues concerning the text of a trade agreement, without elaborating on details.
Lighthizer said at the hearing that he was on the phone "up to 9 o'clock" Monday night and that the discussion went through many "very, very complicated issues".
|U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer testifies before House Ways and Means Committee hearing on U.S.-China Trade on Capitol Hill in Washington U.S., February 27, 2019. Reuters-Yonhap|
"We are working, more or less, continuously. I will be on phone again with them tomorrow," he said. "If we have an agreement, it would be 110 to 120 pages. It's very, very detailed and very specific".
Asked whether a deal could be expected to emerge by the end of the month, Lighthizer said only that "we will see".
"We are either going to have a good result or we are going to have a bad result before too long, but I'm not setting up a specific time frame ― it is not up to me," he said.
"The president will tell me when the time is up, or the Chinese will."
As a gesture of goodwill during the negotiations, the U.S. has delayed raising the tariffs levied on US$200 billion of Chinese products from the current 10 per cent to a new level of 25 per cent, a move which had been scheduled to take effect March 1. There have been hopes that an enforceable deal could to address persistent issues including technology transfers, market access, China's hefty industrial subsidies and its failure to protect intellectual property rights.
Jake Parker, vice president of China operations at the U.S.-China Business Council, said that China has incentives to reach a deal but is also facing domestic pressures for any agreement to "not be viewed as capitulation to the U.S".
|China's President Xi Jinping (L) and US President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. AFP-Yonhap|
"We understand that any deal without a clear path for lifting the initial US$50 billion under the Section 301 tariffs was unlikely to be acceptable to the Chinese side," he told the South China Morning Post.
Parker added that Beijing would regard a rollback of existing tariffs and a balanced enforcement mechanism as important parts of a successful outcome.
"From the business community's perspective, the U.S. government should avoid any enforcement or monitoring mechanism that risks another unpredictable escalation of tariffs," Parker said.
Questioned by Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, about whether the U.S. might lift tariffs on Chinese imports before seeing "hard evidence on the ground that the Chinese are changing", Lighthizer said he would not comment in public about the precise nature of current negotiations.
Structural issues such as IP protection, forced technology transfer and subsidy issues were being addressed "with precision" in the current talks, he said.
"That is not to say that we've come to conclusion, because we haven't," Lighthizer said. "But we're making headway."