Proper U.S.-China trade deal more important than timing: U.S. Commerce chief

By Andrea Shalal, David Shepardson and Alexandra Alper

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Tuesday rejected any deadlines on a trade deal with China and launched a fresh attack on telecoms giant Huawei, further dimming hopes for an end to a 17-month trade war that has slowed global growth.

Ross told Reuters in an interview that it was more important to reach a trade deal with China that is favorable to the United States than to rush through a deal by the end of this year, or even next year.

The U.S. Commerce chief said the world’s two largest economies still needed to work out details about China’s purchases of farm products, some structural issues and an enforcement mechanism in order to ink an interim trade agreement that President Donald Trump had hoped to complete last month.

Trump, speaking in Europe on Tuesday, said an interim trade deal with China could slip until after the U.S. presidential election in November 2020, sending financial markets lower.

“The point he was trying to make is we need a proper deal, and whether it comes this December, or it’s next December, or some other date is much less important than getting a proper deal,” Ross said in a wide-ranging interview during a visit to New York.

“The important thing is to get a deal that works,” he said. “Because let’s face it, if we don’t make a deal with China now, it’s going to be a long, long time before there is a deal,” he said. Very few other presidents would be willing to “put up with the stresses and strains” of negotiating with China, Ross added.

He said he expected Trump to win the 2020 presidential election. But if Trump lost and no deal had been reached with China, the issue would be “somebody else’s problem.”

Final approval would be up to Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Ross noted. “We get to recommend. We don’t get to be the final decision maker.”

He also took aim at Huawei, saying the Chinese company that was blacklisted by the U.S. government in May had been encouraging its suppliers to violate U.S. law by telling them to move operations offshore in a bid to avoid U.S. sanctions.

AUTO TARIFFS STILL A POSSIBILITY

Ross dismissed threats by the European Union to retaliate against threatened U.S. tariffs against French cheese and other products over a digital services tax, and other European products over a long-running aircraft subsidy case.

“Europe has always had a hair trigger against the United States and that’s nothing new,” he said.

Europe had more protectionist policies than the United States, Ross said, with 17 of the top 21 products traded between the two blocs facing higher tariffs in Europe.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, speaks during an interview in New York, U.S., December 3, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

“There already has been a tariff war. The only thing is we haven’t been defending ourselves. We’ve been accepting the lopsidedness of things,” he said.

Ross underscored the continued importance of tariffs as leverage against other countries that Washington says are taking unfair advantage of outdated global trading rules and making it difficult for U.S. companies to compete.

He said the Trump administration has not ruled out imposing tariffs on imported autos, after letting a review period end in November with no action.

“We’ve been having negotiations with the individual companies. We’ve had some very good benefits from that,” Ross said. “It may or may not turn out that there is any need for the tariff.”

Trump did not announce any new tariffs after a six-month, self-imposed review period expired in mid-November following a Commerce Department investigation into whether imported autos pose a national security threat. He has threatened to tax them by as much as 25%.

Asked if there was a new deadline, Ross referred to a White House statement last month that did not include a new deadline.

FRENCH DIGITAL TAX “VERY RADICAL”

Ross also dismissed as “very radical” France’s proposed 3% digital tax, which he said was aimed squarely at U.S. companies, and said European countries should focus on developing their own technology rather than penalizing U.S. companies.

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The tax applies to revenue from digital services earned by firms with more than 25 million euros ($27.86 million) in French revenue and 750 million euros (644 million pounds) worldwide.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office on Monday threatened to slap tariffs on French Champagne and other products after concluding the French tax violated international tax policy and would unduly burden U.S. companies, such as Alphabet Inc’s Google (GOOGL.O), Facebook Inc (FB.O), Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O).

Reporting by Andrea Shalal, David Shepardson and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Edward Tobin

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