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EU commerce chamber urges China to go beyond rhetoric at import fair

[BEIJING] Slow progress implementing China's vows to open up makes it imperative for the nation to move beyond rhetoric - and it can start at the China International Import Expo (CIIE) next week.

That's according to a report on doing business in the country by the European Chamber of Commerce in China's Shanghai chapter. The reform deficit has sparked tensions with China's major trading partners, in part because of raised expectations following President Xi Jinping's promise of further opening in a speech to the World Economic Forum last year, the paper said.

"The CIIE can be the way to reduce trade deficit with some countries, but we believe it won't be the way to resolve structural reform deficit that China is suffering at this stage," Carlo Diego D'Andrea, the chamber's Shanghai chairman, told reporters on Friday.

"What we would like to see from this expo, from the speech of President Xi on Monday, is a clear time line of reform."

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Mr Xi is set to address the China International Import Expo that begins in Shanghai Nov 5, putting his personal stamp on an event geared to demonstrate China's willingness to open its economy. China is under pressure from Donald Trump and elsewhere to wind back its US$423 billion goods trade surplus, and Mr Xi has already pledged that China will import US$24 trillion dollars of goods from abroad over the next decade and a half.

European business has high expectations of the import fair, which builds on commitments made by Mr Xi - as well as other senior Chinese officials - since early 2017, according to the report released on Friday.

Some 3,000 companies from over 100 countries are due to exhibit at the fair, to connect with buyers from the world's biggest market by population. That the event is happening at a time when China is facing higher tariffs on all of its goods sent to the US increases its importance, as the global economy is facing an escalating and growth-sapping trade war with little resolution in sight.

European and US companies via their commerce chambers regularly complain that they're barred from accessing markets in China that are open to Chinese companies in their own countries.

Forty-six per cent of European companies said they miss out on business opportunities in China as a result of regulatory barriers or market access restrictions, and the same percentage of companies said they expect regulatory obstacles to increase over the next five years, according to an EU Chamber survey published in June.

The long stagnation in actual steps of opening up has frustrated some European firms, which have instead been rooting for restriction of Chinese investments in their home countries, according to Adam Dunnett, the chamber's secretary general, who described such a mindset as "a fundamental change".

"This is not our policy or our position or what we are advocating, but the fact that we have members talking that way is of real concern to us," he said.

"We don't want China to be relatively more open; we want China to be open. It's the world's second-largest economy," Mr Dunnett said. "Is what we are asking for that unreasonable?"

BLOOMBERG