China, U.S. stand by trade deal as virus pushes relations to worst in decades


    Trump said Sunday that he could “terminate” the deal if China did not meet its obligations to increase its purchases of U.S. goods this year by $76.7 billion from the 2017 level. But Chinese imports from the United States have declined in recent months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc on economies worldwide, raising doubts about whether Beijing could meet its targets.

    The U.S. readout of the call, attended by Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, was more explicit than the Chinese version and said both sides “agreed” that “both countries fully expect to meet their obligations under the agreement in a timely manner.”

    The statement from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said that both sides “agreed that good progress is being made on creating the governmental infrastructures necessary to make the agreement a success.”

    The call was the first dialogue between top-level trade officials since the partial agreement was signed in the White House’s East Room on Jan. 15. The coronavirus, which at that time was already sweeping across the city of Wuhan, burst into full view the following week as Chinese officials finally acknowledged its infectious potential and scrambled to seal off central Hubei province.

    China’s handling of the outbreak, including repeated statements in early January downplaying the virus’s threat, has been heavily criticized by hawkish members of the U.S. administration who have floated the possibility of seeking financial compensation or imposing a fresh round of steep tariffs on imports from China that would extract hundreds of billions of dollars.

    In response, Beijing has accused the U.S. administration of “shifting blame” to distract from its own failures to contain the pandemic, and it has launched a salvo of unprecedented, personal attacks in state media against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

    The U.S. death toll surpassed 70,000 this week, while China’s topped out at less than 5,000, according to Chinese government figures.

    The state-run blog “Taoran Notes,” which periodically offers an anonymous but authoritative view from inside the Chinese political system, said Friday that the call was “extraordinarily significant” because the two sides discussed cooperation on improving the world economy and public health.

    The blog maintained that hawkish members of Trump’s circle were inflaming tensions with China, rather than cooperating, in order to boost the president’s reelection chances. That has jeopardized American public health, the blog argued.

    “Some people in the United States insist ‘the election situation is more important than the epidemic situation,’ and the political interests of the minority are placed above the lives of the majority,” the blog said. “Essentially, this is a disregard for life.”

    The relatively conciliatory call between the trade representatives came against the backdrop of one of the most acrimonious periods in U.S.-China relations.

    In March, Chinese officials around the world disseminated fringe theories that the virus was carried into China by U.S. soldiers. Trump and Pompeo then hit back by suggesting that the pathogen leaked from a Wuhan lab — a theory that is not substantiated by current evidence, according to the majority of scientific researchers and U.S. intelligence and defense officials.

    On Wednesday, Trump said he would check within a week on China’s progress in buying U.S. goods. The following day, the China Daily newspaper lamented that “the rapport that seemed to have developed between the two countries during their trade talks is now just a distant memory.”

    Even if China steps up its purchases in some sectors, it’s unclear if it will meet other commitments.

    During the first quarter, China’s economy shrank by 6.8 percent as the country shut down and exports dried up. In April, imports fell 14.2 percent, more than what economists forecast.

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