Twenty-one months after President Donald Trump took office, China still does not know which of his top advisers has the most influence over the president’s handling of increasingly fraught trade tensions with Beijing, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, said Sunday.
“You tell me,” Cui told “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace, when asked which administration official can reliably speak for Trump on trade issues. “Honestly, I’ve been talking to other ambassadors in Washington, D.C. This is also part of their problem.”
“What?” Wallace asked.
“They don’t know who is the final decision-maker. Of course, presumably, the president would take the final decision. But who is playing what role? Sometimes it could be very confusing,” Cui said.
Typically, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative takes the lead in trade negotiations with other countries. But early in the administration, before U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was confirmed, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross were put in charge of a new Comprehensive Economic Dialogue with Beijing, which was swiftly abandoned after it failed to produce big results.
Since then, Lighthizer’s office has spearheaded an investigation into China’s industrial policies and intellectual property practices that provided the legal basis for Trump to impose tariffs on more than $250 billion worth of Chinese goods.
However, Lighthizer appears to have played only a supporting role in several rounds of high-profile negotiations this year that have made little progress in narrowing differences between the two sides. That, combined with other frictions on the military and political front, has prompted talk of a U.S.-Sino cold war.
White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow, appearing on the Fox News show, said: “I’ll leave it to the historians about the term ‘cold war.’ But I will say this: I’ve been very involved in the trade talks with China. Those talks have been unsatisfactory. We’ve made our asks. You can’t steal American intellectual property. You can’t force technology transfers.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Cui was “correct that the president is the final decision-maker.”
She also said Lighthizer is “the lead negotiator, but we have a deep bench of people with strong understanding of trade policy that are part of the team.”
Both Kudlow and Mnuchin are seen as more moderate on China, while Lighthizer, Ross and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro generally take a more hawkish line. Administration officials have previously played down reports of major internal disagreements, while acknowledging Trump encourages his aides to express different points of view.
Vice President Mike Pence recently ratcheted up the administration’s criticism in a speech that accused China of economic aggression and of trying to influence the November midterm elections by targeting its retaliation on more than $110 billion worth of American exports on farm goods and other products from states that voted for Trump in 2016.
“All these accusations are groundless,” Cui said “One of the fundamental principles in China’s policy is noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, and we have been consistent in this position. We have a very good track record.”
He also rejected Navarro’s description of China as “a parasite of the world” that has fueled its growth at the expense of other countries.
“China has 1.4 billion people. It would be hard to imagine that one-fifth of the global population could develop and prosper not by relying mainly on their own efforts, but by stealing or by forcing some transfer of technology from others. That’s impossible,” he said.
On a more positive note, Cui said Secretary of State’s Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Beijing was a “very good communications, at such a high level, between the two sides. And it’s very timely.”
But he criticized a pending $330 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan as a “very good example of U.S. interference” in the region, and defended China’s naval operations in the South China Seas against charges that his country is restricting freedom of navigation.
Still, Cui seemed to hold out the possibility of some progress when Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are in Beijing from Nov. 30 through December 1 for the annual G20 leaders meeting, although it has not yet been confirmed that they will hold bilateral talks.
In meetings at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago vacation resort in Florida in April 2017 and in Beijing last November, “it was so clear that such top-level communication played a key role, irreplaceable role, in guiding the relationship forward,” Cui said.
“There is a good mutual understanding and a good working relationship between the two [leaders]. I hope and I’m sure this will continue,” he said.