US tariffs on Chinese imports could remain in place for a "substantial period of time", even extending beyond the reaching of a trade deal between Washington and Beijing, US President Donald Trump said on Wednesday.
"We're talking about leaving (the tariffs) for a substantial period of time because we have to make sure that if we do the deal with China, that China lives by the deal", Trump told reporters outside the White House.
US negotiators to fly to Beijing next week for new round of trade talks
In a trade war now in its ninth month, the US has slapped tariffs ranging from 10 to 25 per cent on around US$250 billion of Chinese goods entering the US. In retaliation, Beijing has put tariffs on around US$110 billion of imports from the US.
Trump's remarks came as his chief trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, prepares to head to Beijing next week for the latest round of high-level talks with Beijing negotiators, after a weeks-long hiatus in face-to-face meetings between the two sides.
Lighthizer, the US Trade Representative (USTR), will travel to China alongside the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, Politico reported on Tuesday.
Washington is pursuing commitments from Beijing to change its trade practices and economic policies to produce improvements such as better protection of intellectual property, ending the alleged forced transfer of foreign technology through joint ventures, increasing access to China's markets, and augmenting purchases of US goods, particularly in agriculture.
One particularly sticky aspect of the negotiations has been enforcement, the verification mechanism by which the US can monitor China's adherence to - or deviation from - those promised reforms and enact commensurate punitive measures.
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Beijing has resisted implementing a verification mechanism that would allow the US to act unilaterally, for instance with more tariffs.
Trump suggested on Wednesday that prolonging the tariffs would indeed be a way to hold Beijing to account on its commitments.
China has had "a lot of problems living by certain deals and we have to make sure", said Trump, who, in what he presented as a gesture of good will earlier this month, had held off on a planned 10 to 25 per cent increase in tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese imports, citing "substantial progress" in negotiations.
A US Chamber of Commerce official, who had been briefed on the progress of the negotiations, said recent conversations between Lighthizer and Liu He, the Chinese vice-premier, focused heavily on a verification mechanism. The two spoke twice last week over the phone.
"On enforcement, they spent a lot of time on that," the chamber official told reporters at a background briefing on Friday, adding that the issues of tariffs and enforcement were closely linked.
The president's comments are likely to stoke fear in Beijing that the US tariffs will not necessarily be lifted if a deal is reached. Getting the tariffs removed has been the Chinese negotiators' priority during the talks.
US administration officials were concerned that Beijing was backing away from pledges it had made on certain issues because of a lack of assurance the US would lift the tariffs, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday, citing multiple unnamed sources familiar with the negotiations.
At a recent Senate hearing, Lighthizer said the US had "to maintain the right to be able to - whatever happens to the current tariffs - to raise tariffs in situations where there's violations of the agreement".
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Despite the threat of sustained tariff action against Beijing, Trump said on Wednesday that the deal with China was "coming along nicely".
Lighthizer has repeatedly sought to temper optimism about the two sides reaching a consensus, telling US lawmakers at a House hearing in late February that much work remained to be done "both before an agreement is reached and, more importantly, after it is reached, if one is reached".
Additional reporting by Wendy Wu
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