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China Wants To End Trade War But 'U.S. Position Keeps Changing,' Ambassador Says

Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the U.S., speaks during a reception at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., in July.
Deng Min/China News Service/VCG/Getty Images
Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the U.S., speaks during a reception at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., in July.

China's ambassador to the United States says his country is "ready to make a deal" to end a trade war with the United States — if they could find a trustworthy partner in Washington.

Cui Tiankai accused the United States of shifting positions and passing up opportunities for agreement. The United States has been escalating tariffs on imports from China, and China he responded with taxes on U.S. goods.

Amid rising tension, the veteran Chinese diplomat sat for a wide-ranging interview at NPR headquarters Wednesday. He offered a window into some of the frustrations of the world's most important international relationship, as a dominant power spars against an increasingly powerful one. The fight pits China's deeply entrenched leader Xi Jinping against the unpredictable President Trump.

The U.S. position keeps changing all the time, so we don't know exactly what the U.S. would want as priorities.

Cui, elegantly dressed and silver-haired, asserted that the trade war could be resolved through "good faith."

"We are ready to make some compromise," he said, but in recent negotiations "the U.S. position keeps changing all the time, so we don't know exactly what the U.S. would want as priorities."

The Chinese government, he said, is willing to take steps to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China, which is a central complaint of President Trump. He asserted that China is also willing to commit to "reforms" to China's economy, where state-supported firms often compete for business with built-in advantages against foreign competitors. The U.S., he said, must clarify what it wants.

"More than once" in recent months, the ambassador said, "we had some tentative agreement between the two working teams, then just overnight, the tentative agreement was rejected, and the demand from the U.S. changed. So this is very confusing."

White House officials have not described China as so accommodating. In an interview last month on NPR, presidential trade adviser Peter Navarro insisted that ending the trade war "is all up to China," and that "if China stops their unfair trade practices, it's over." Navarro said China "basically cheat[s] us," and he repeated demands that have been made, with little success, by administrations from both parties, such as better protection of intellectual property rights in China. The U.S. especially wants China to allow American firms to do business there without being forced to share technology.

Ambassador Cui said he, like other diplomats, has tried every means to better understand Trump. Deeming U.S. policy statements inconsistent ("If people tell you one story one day and a different story a different day, then you're confused"), he has turned to the president's Twitter feed. "If it's written by the president, it has to be meaningful," Cui said.

China's chief diplomat also obtained the Bob Woodward book Fear, which chronicled chaos and dysfunction in the White House. "I certainly have a copy," he said. "I have talked to many other ambassadors here. We all share the same concern. All of us want to have a better understanding of what is happening here, and what it would mean for us."

Cui urged the White House not to follow up on a reported idea to bar Chinese students from American universities, which he called "very dangerous," saying that "people-to-people contacts" offer a "foundation of friendship."

But he demurred when asked if China would allow more openness: welcoming more journalists or scholars to sensitive areas of his country, such as the Xinjiang region, home to majority-Muslim Uighurs, and traditionally Buddhist Tibet.

Xinjiang, he insisted, faces a threat of "terrorism," while journalists must stay away from Tibet because of its "very high altitude."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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