U.S. News

Currency Impasse Overshadows U.S.-China Deals


The United States and China struck civil aviation and financial sector access deals on Wednesday but they made no headway on the divisive issue of Chinese currency reform, stoking anger on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers said they would move ahead with proposals to slap tariffs on Chinese imports because of Beijing's reluctance to redress the huge trade imbalance between the economic giants with a revaluation of the yuan.

The anger in Congress overshadowed U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's claim of "tangible results" in the second leg of a "strategic economic dialogue" with Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi.

Wu, for her part, said the "complicated" relations between Washington and Beijing needed careful handling and cautioned against retaliatory steps. "It calls for direct consultation and dialogue between us, instead of easy resort to threat or sanctions," Wu said after two days of closed-door talks with Bush administration officials.

The official China Daily newspaper said in an editorial that both countries bore responsibility for the trade gap between them and warned against U.S. impatience for a rapid cure. "The dialogue made it clear that a confrontational approach focusing on so-called immediate results only complicates the situation and adds nothing to problem solving," it said.

China's stellar economic growth was indeed too dependent on exports, the daily said, but it was also "all too obvious that the U.S. consumers spend too much and save too little, resulting in their country's current account deficit".

Tension was heightened during the talks by mounting concern about the safety of Chinese exports after reports about toxic toothpaste and contaminated pet food. U.S. officials said they stressed to their Chinese counterparts that food and medicine safety was a "top concern".

"Recent events have forced very clearly as one of our top concerns the safety of food and and medicine," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Food and Drug Administration, will block all Chinese toothpaste at the U.S.  border and won't release it until tests showed it was safe.   China is the second-largest exporter of toothpaste to the U.S. behind Canada.

China "Doing Its Best"

The most concrete outcome of the talks was a deal committing China to remove a bar on new foreign securities firms and resume issuing licenses for securities companies, including joint ventures, in the second half of 2007.

That was a coup for former Goldman Sachs chairman Paulson, who has made gaining greater access to the Chinese financial sector a key objective. 

The two sides also agreed on a new aviation pact that U.S. transportation officials said would more than double the number of passenger flights between the two countries by 2012.

Meanwhile, Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Ma Xiuhong said a Chinese business delegation on a 24-state U.S. tour had signed $32.6 billion in deals so far.

The buying spree appeared timed to soften U.S. congressional criticism of China's practice of managing its currency, the yuan, in a way that U.S. lawmakers and companies complain makes Chinese products unfairly cheap in U.S. markets.

But the chairman of the powerful House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, New York Democrat Charles Rangel, said after a meeting between Wu and committee members that "we're moving forward" on tariff legislation.

Rangel favors a bill to let the Commerce Department levy duties on Chinese goods to offset the "subsidy" effect of China's exchange-rate policies.

Rangel's swift decision suggested that time was running out for Paulson to show that persuasion is sufficient to get China to permit the yuan to appreciate more quickly.

In July 2005, China abandoned an 11-year-old practice of holding the yuan fixed against the dollar and revalued it by 2.1 percent. But since then it has risen only a further 6 percent, frustrating U.S. legislators.

The head of China's central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, said China had pressures of its own to deal with that made it hard to speed up currency reform.

"They may think that we can accelerate the speed of reform, but we think that we already try our best, and domestically we have pressure to slow down," Zhou told reporters after meeting the lawmakers.

China remains an emerging-market economy only partly driven by free-market forces, but its cheap labor force and exporting prowess have enabled it to become the world's fourth-largest economy, behind the United States, Japan and Germany.