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Trump to meet China envoy, lifting hopes for trade talks

AFP / SAUL LOEB Chinese trade envoy Liu He is greeted by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer (L) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (R)

President Donald Trump announced Thursday he will meet with China's top trade envoy, raising hopes as the two sides pursue fraught negotiations that had appeared headed for a dead end.

As senior officials returned to the negotiating table on Thursday amid a blitz of aggressive US maneuvers, Trump said on Twitter that he would meet Friday with Vice Premier Liu He, sending US stocks higher and helping to erase some the week's losses.

The talks resumed with scant hope the economic powers would be able to strike a grand bargain any time soon, especially after an overnight news report said the Chinese side could leave early given slim progress made in preliminary negotiations.

But the atmosphere for the high-stakes discussions was shifting rapidly. Liu smiled broadly as he was greeted by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday morning.

And late Wednesday, Liu had told dignitaries in Washington that his team had come "with great sincerity" and hoped to reach a "common understanding" with the Americans, Chinese state media reported.

Following a day of meetings, officials are due to dine together on Thursday evening, US trade officials said. However, there was no word whether negotiations would continue into a second day.

Still, there was no hiding the sharp deterioration in relations this week. US duties on $250 billion in Chinese imports are due to rise in five days.

Trump -- who has taken the global economy on a white-knuckle ride since launching multi-pronged trade offensives with China, Europe and other allies last year -- reiterated Thursday that the outcome was down to him.

"Big day of negotiations with China. They want to make a deal but do I?" he said on Twitter.

"I meet with the vice premier tomorrow at the White House."

AFP / Jim WATSON Donald Trump meets with China's Vice Premier Liu He in April 2019

Just since Monday, Washington has imposed visa restrictions on senior Chinese officials and blacklisted more than two dozen Chinese firms, accusing them of persecuting ethnic Uighur Muslims in China's western Xinjiang region.

The measures have outraged Beijing and in the process penalized major players in the artificial intelligence sector, an areas where the United States and China are intense rivals.

But Trump's attitude toward the process is subject to sudden change, given the churning pressures competing for his attention.

- 'More and more friction' -

He is as usual engulfed in turmoil, facing intensifying impeachment probe by Democrats and stinging bipartisan criticism for allowing a Turkish assault on Washington's Kurdish partners to go forward by pulling American forces away from the border in northeast Syria.

Markets over the prior 24 hours had pinned their hopes on media reports that Beijing will propose a partial trade deal to prevent further escalation.

China is willing to bump up purchases of US farm exports and make other concessions, but will stop short of addressing Trump's core grievances, according to reports from Bloomberg and The Financial Times.

In return, Beijing would expect a pause on planned increases in US import tariffs, which are currently scheduled to increase in waves through December.

Washington accuses China of attempting to dominate global industry through massive state intervention in markets, theft of intellectual property, hacking and subsidies, accusations shared by Europe and Japan.

Clete Willems, a former Trump trade advisor, said Wednesday that a partial deal could be the president's best move.

"I don't think the administration should be afraid of a partial deal," he told CNBC, adding that a bargain that came with some structural reforms to China's economy could leave Trump with enough leverage to pursue more reforms down the road.

China's purchases of US soybeans jumped in September after stagnating during the summer. But warning signs for the global economy have blared ever louder in recent weeks, however, increasing the pressure on both sides to reach a deal.

US central bankers believe the trade war is raising the chances the United States could slip into recession.

"We all know the next round of tariffs is going to hurt the United States as much or more than China," Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, told AFP.

"I think neither side will admit it but I think they're both under pressure to find a way to forestall the next set of tariff increases," she said. "Every month that these trade talks continue, there's more and more friction in the relationship."

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