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Time is running out for the US-China trade talks — but American firms still have big questions

Key Points
  • With just about one month to go before the U.S.-China trade truce comes to an end, some in the American business community have expressed concerns that many questions remain on whether the two countries can make enough progress before the early-March deadline lapses.
  • But for the American business community, there have been little signs that thorny issues affecting them have been addressed.
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With just about one month to go before the U.S.-China trade truce comes to an end, some in the American business community have expressed concerns that many questions remain on whether the two countries can make enough progress before the early-March deadline lapses.

Those doubts linger despite U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin expressing optimism that "significant progress" can be achieved during this week's high-level trade negotiations in Washington.

"I have a sense that on both sides, there is a determination to get a deal done. But the question is: What is the deal?" Myron Brilliant, U.S. Chamber of Commerce's executive vice president and head of international affairs, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Thursday.

The U.S. and China — the world's largest economies — engaged in a bitter tariff fight last year over a number of issues including the their bilateral trade imbalance, alleged intellectual property theft by Chinese firms and Beijing's industrial subsidies that put American firms at a disadvantage. China has repeatedly denied those charges.

For the trade talks this week, nothing significant is going to happen.
Steve Okun
senior advisor at McLarty Associates

That dispute was put on hold for 90 days starting Dec. 1 after U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met and agreed to halt additional tariffs as both sides ironed out their trade differences.

For the American business community, there have been little signs that thorny issues affecting them have been addressed.

"We hear rumblings or rumors there are some offers (by the Chinese delegation to Washington) around IP (intellectual property) enforcement, around the other sensitive issues. However, we're not yet hearing progress in areas that are important for business as well as to the administration," said Brilliant.

He added that he would like to see progress on issues such as industrial subsidies and forced transfer of technology.

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'Still a very long way'

Brilliant is not the only one who has raised doubts over the progress in the U.S.-China trade talks. Reuters reported that groups, such as the U.S.-China Business Council, were not expecting any breakthrough from this week's negotiations.

Any meaningful progress on trade between the two countries is "still a very long way" away, said Steve Okun, senior advisor at consulting firm McLarty Associates.

"For the trade talks this week, nothing significant is going to happen," Okun, a trade expert and a board member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, told CNBC's "Capital Connection" on Thursday.

"We're not going to know if those structural changes are going to take place (in China) ... that can't happen by March 1 but because the atmospheric around these trade talks are likely to be very positive, especially when President Trump meets (China's) Liu He, the markets are going to take that as a sign that progress has been made. But there is still a very long way to go," he added.

Trump and Liu — China's vice premier and Xi's top economic advisor — are expected to meet while the Chinese delegation is in Washington.

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