A container ship of Maersk is docked at Ningbo Zhoushan Port. (Photo: Global Times)
Just as China is stepping efforts to help countries around the world to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese officials are actively pushing for cuts to tariffs and removal of trade barriers to not just help the global economy cushion the potentially grave impact but also preserve the multilateral free trade system amid rising protectionism.
During a video conference with the trade and investment ministers of G20 members and other countries, Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan reiterated a call from President Xi Jinping during a leaders' summit on Thursday for countries to reduce tariffs, remove trade barriers and take measures to facilitate trade.
Countries should also "keep their markets open, preserve the multilateral trade system and oppose protectionism," Zhong said during the meeting, according to a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) on Tuesday.
While Chinese officials have largely refrained from responding to constant flip-flops by the US regarding the trade war and have moved to implement the phase one trade deal, their recent comments strike a clear message that it's time for the US to end its relentless trade war, Chinese trade experts noted.
"These are very pointed comments aimed at the US, which refuses to stop its trade war with not just China but other countries at such a difficult time for the world," Bai Ming, a trade expert at the International Market Research Institute of the MOFCOM, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
Chinese officials, including President Xi, have kept in close contact with European leaders over cooperation in the fight against the pandemic. In terms of trade, Zhong has also held phone conversations with European trade officials, including Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan and British Secretary of State for International Trade Elizabeth Truss.
In those phone calls, Zhong also conveyed similar messages — that China was willing to cooperate in opposing trade unilateralism and protectionism and protect the multilateral trade systems. In the call with Hogan and EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Thierry Breton, Zhong also spoke of cooperation with the EU to push forward "various trade reforms."
For his part, Hogan, in his remarks in the G20 meeting on Monday, also stressed the "crucial importance that governments actively pursue WTO reform."
"Certainly, there are differences between China and the EU over various issues at the WTO. But there are more common interests and the pandemic has highlighted that. So we could finally see some breakthroughs," Huo Jianguo, a trade expert in Beijing who studies the WTO, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
More than just words, China, the EU and more than 10 other WTO members have moved to set up a temporary arrangement for the WTO's Appellate Body, which has been crippled after the US blocked new members to the settlement mechanism since December, according to a statement from the MOFCOM on Friday.
Huo said that further efforts to restart the Appellate Body might require "communication with the US," which could be complicated. Still, the pandemic has exerted great pressure on the US economy and its leaders, and "some sort of adjustments" to its trade policies are more likely than before, he said.
"Here is what we have learned: No matter what others say, the US would only change when its interests are at stake. With the pandemic, the US economy and consumers will feel the brunt of the trade wars and that's when we will see changes," Huo said.
While maintaining tariffs on most Chinese products, US officials have moved to waive duties on imports of Chinese medical and other products essential to its anti-epidemic efforts. US President Donald Trump is already under increasing pressure from US businesses to suspend tariffs to help businesses cope with the pandemic.
Meanwhile, China has continued to implement the phase one trade agreement and has taken measures, including reduced tariffs, accelerated s clearance and other regulatory procedures, to facilitate trade not just with the US but with other partners.