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China's former trade negotiator questions country's tariff strategy

[BEIJING] China's former top trade negotiator has questioned Beijing's strategy in the trade row with Washington, offering a rare window into a policy disagreement in the Communist-ruled country.

Long Yongtu, who paved the way for the country's admission to the World Trade Organization, suggested the government erred by immediately retaliating against Washington tariffs by imposing levies on soybeans from the United States.

"I hope when you start hitting back you'll avoid hitting agricultural products," and leave them for last, Mr Long said he advised before the trade war's first tariff volley this summer.

"Instead from the very start we hit their agricultural products and soybeans," China's former chief representative for trade negotiations said at a a Caixin media business forum on Sunday.

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China slapped 25 per cent tariffs on American soybeans - its single largest import from the US - and other products in July immediately after Donald Trump fired at US$50 billion in Chinese imports.

The move was widely seen as an attack on Mr Trump's agricultural base of electoral support, and tacitly acknowledged as such by Chinese officials.

"I said from my experience in China-US trade, agricultural products are very sensitive, soybeans are very sensitive," Mr Long said.

When China was negotiating its WTO entry, the US wanted to bring politics into the discussion, said Mr Long.

"But if you talk politics you will never reach a deal," Mr Long warned, recommending the world's top two economic giants engage narrowly on trade and avoid the larger strategic rivalry to strike a deal.

But Mr Long's interlocutor on stage, and during the WTO negotiations nearly two decades ago, former US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, cautioned that the gulf between the two powers was expanding.

"China's economy and economic policies have been on a divergent course from market economics... accelerating in the last four or five years," Ms Barshefsky told the Caixin forum.

The shift to a state-led system is a "fundamental conflict between China and the United States and other countries Europe, Japan, Australia", she said.

"It is difficult to resolve."

AFP