By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 15, 2006
BEIJING, Dec. 14 -- U.S. and Chinese leaders clashed publicly on the opening day of strategic economic talks, with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. pushing China to revalue its currency and Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi saying Americans do not have a full understanding of the situation.
After standing by as U.S. officials criticized her country's economic policies in the media during the past week, Wu set the tone for the meeting with assertive introductory remarks that spanned 20 typed pages and 5,000 years of Chinese history.
"Some American friends are not only having limited knowledge of, but harboring much misunderstanding about, the reality in China," Wu said, according to a copy of her remarks provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For example, Wu noted that China needed to create enough jobs to absorb an estimated 300 million rural workers -- equal to the entire population of the United States -- into its urban economy in the next two decades.
Paulson was equally aggressive in his follow-up speech, saying that the U.S. government's "strong view" is that China should allow its currency, the yuan, to be more flexible. Most countries allow the value of their currencies to be set in global markets, but China intervenes to keep its currency pegged to the dollar at an exchange rate that many Western economists regard as skewed in China's favor.
The Chinese economy "would be more effective under a regime where currency values are determined in a competitive, open marketplace based upon economic fundamentals," Paulson said. A revaluation of the yuan upward would make U.S. goods cheaper in China and Chinese goods more expensive in the United States.
Throughout the day, U.S. officials pushed on issues such as trying to resolve the huge trade imbalance between the two countries and making sure that China lives up to commitments it made five years ago when it joined the World Trade Organization. By the afternoon, they said they were optimistic.
"They were very much in a receiving mode," Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in an interview with reporters. "They were listening very carefully."
Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said that the meeting "exceeded expectations" and that "it was a very candid . . . honest, solid dialogue."
High-level U.S. officials, interviewed after the close of meetings for the day, said the two sides agreed on many things in principle, such as the need to keep their economies open to other countries. But specific measures and a timetable were less clear, with the United States pushing for rapid change and China seeking to move cautiously.
Skepticism toward foreign trade, particularly with China, played a major role in the recent U.S. elections, and proposals for punitive tariffs or other protectionist measures could gain support in Congress next year.
"I sense that they have an understanding of the stakes," Gutierrez said. "And the stakes are very large. You are talking about a lot of business, a lot of jobs on both sides. We are their No. 1 customer."
While most of the day was focused on U.S. requests of Beijing, China also listed some priorities: fewer obstacles to the export of U.S. technology and to Chinese investment in the United States. The complaint about U.S. export controls, in particular, led to some tense exchanges, U.S. delegates said,
"They would like no restrictions, and we have restrictions, so there are certain things that they would like that we can't give on," Guttierez said.
U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab said in an interview that she told the Chinese that their country was "slowing if not backsliding" on economic reforms.
Paulson is a former Wall Street executive who has made dozens of trips to China. He has taken command of the Bush administration's economic discussions with that country and took a high-level delegation of Cabinet members and others with him on this trip as he seeks to make progress toward resolving thorny disputes.
The format of the meeting included formal presentations and broad debate on issues such as China's transport problems and the U.S. culture of easy credit.
Perhaps the meeting's most anticipated and sensitive talks -- about whether China should allow the yuan to rise in value -- were anchored by a statement from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, who accompanied Paulson on the trip.
Bernanke said an increase in the currency's value would benefit China, according to U.S. officials present at the talk.
"Other people piped in to say the U.S. has a very interested stake in China's economic well-being," Chao said.