China Trade Talks Restart as White House Explores Escalation Options

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Containers are seen at a port in Lianyungang in China's eastern Jiangsu province on July 13, 2018. - China's surplus with the United States hit a record last month, data showed on July 13, adding to brewing tensions between the economic superpowers as they stand on the brink of an all-out trade war that Beijing warned would have a "negative impact" globally. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — American and Chinese officials met for the 13th round of trade negotiations on Thursday amid growing expectations of a limited deal that could ease tensions and address some of President Trump’s concerns about China’s economic practices.

“We had a very, very good negotiation with China,” Mr. Trump said on Thursday afternoon, adding that the two sides would continue discussions on Friday. “It’s going very well.”

But administration officials are separately weighing options that could inflict additional economic pain on Beijing as the United States continues looking for ways to force China to change longstanding rules that have put American companies at a disadvantage.

The ideas under consideration would move the White House’s negotiating tool of choice beyond tariffs toward limiting China’s access to American capital markets and imposing greater scrutiny on its companies, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Administration officials, including members of the National Security Council, have begun pressing the Securities and Exchange Commission to increase scrutiny of Chinese firms. They are also looking for ways to reduce the exposure of American retirement funds to certain Chinese companies.

Many of the efforts have been proceeding independently from the trade talks and are fueled by longer-term considerations of China’s economic and security threats. Some White House advisers now view the escalation options as an additional lever to force China to make the kinds of deep economic concessions that have so far proved elusive in the talks, which have dragged on for more than a year.

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On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Robert Lighthizer, Mr. Trump’s top trade negotiator, greeted the Chinese vice premier, Liu He, on the steps of the Office of the United States Trade Representative. The meetings stretched into the afternoon, and at one point a black S.U.V. was seen delivering large brown bags from Clyde’s, a Washington restaurant, for a working lunch.

“Big day of negotiations with China,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning. “They want to make a deal, but do I? I meet with the Vice Premier tomorrow at The White House.”

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce official briefed by both negotiating teams said that the United States and China could announce a limited trade agreement this week that would prevent Mr. Trump’s planned tariff increase from going into effect this month and set rules around how China manages its currency.

Myron Brilliant, the executive vice president and head of international affairs at the Chamber of Commerce, said that a more comprehensive pact could still be announced but that the scope of the deal would depend on what Chinese negotiators offered. The Trump administration could also contemplate removing the threat of additional tariffs that are scheduled to be imposed in December or roll back some of the tariffs it has already levied on more than $360 billion of Chinese goods based on what the Chinese negotiating team offers, he said.

There have been some recent signs of accommodation between the two countries in recent weeks. China has resumed purchases of American agricultural goods. And in what is likely to be viewed as a gesture of good will by the Chinese, the Trump administration plans to approve licenses soon that will allow some companies to sell nonsensitive goods to the Chinese telecom provider Huawei, which has been blacklisted from buying American products.

But China has resisted many of the administration’s demands to make more transformative changes to the way it runs its economy. Chinese officials appear unlikely to agree to the administration’s longstanding demands that Beijing limit its subsidies to Chinese firms, change its policies surrounding the treatment of data or make other structural changes, people familiar with the negotiations said.

The potential for such a limited agreement has fueled private deliberations within the White House on options for escalating economic pressure on China.

Officials have held meetings in recent weeks to consider options if the current round of negotiations fails to address the administration’s primary concerns. Mr. Trump’s top economic advisers have publicly played down the discussions, which have centered on tightening scrutiny of Chinese companies listed on American stock exchanges and limiting the direct exposure of government-run retirement funds to China.

Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, acknowledged on Tuesday that the administration was looking for ways to protect Americans who were investing in Chinese companies.

“We’ve opened up a study group to take a look at it,” Mr. Kudlow said on the Fox Business Network.

But the options under consideration go further than that. According to a memo circulated within the White House and reviewed by The New York Times, the administration is studying a menu of actions that, if carried out, would most likely rattle the Chinese government.

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