Washington (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The annual Sino-US talks began yesterday in Washington. US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner called on China to “lay the foundation for a new growth model, driven more by domestic demand” rather than rely on exports. He also insisted that Beijing must revalue the yuan. Conversely, his Chinese counterparts said the Americans should be more concerned about their protectionism and the restrictions they impose on Chinese investments in the United States, ostensibly on “national security” grounds. Washington also called for greater respect for human rights in China.
For years, the US has accused China of keeping the yuan undervalued by 20 to 40 per cent to favour its exports at the expense of other manufacturing nations like the US, which has see major job loss as a result.
For China, the drawback has been high inflation (5.4 per cent in march). To contain rising prices, Beijing has raised the value of the yuan to reduce the cost of imports. Today, the yuan hit a record 6.4937 yuan against the dollar. In April, it gained 0.9 per cent against the dollar, 5 per cent since April of last year.
Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming responded by telling reporters that "the West's fears and worries about China’s [yuan] exchange rate are unfounded because over the past three years China’s trade surplus has continuously dropped".
Yet, Beijing reported a higher-than-estimated US$ 11.4 billion trade surplus in April, compared with a surplus of $140 million the previous month and US$ 1.68 billion a year earlier. Import growth slowed to 21.8 percent in April from a year earlier whilst jumped 29.9 per cent, just to confirm that China still relies on an export-oriented model of development.
Deputy Premier Wang Qishan acknowledged though that inflation was “the most pressing problem we face right now” and that China had to shift its economic structure. He did not elaborate on the kind of shift needed but stressed the importance for both countries to strengthen their bilateral relations.
Geithner agrees. The treasury secretary in fact said that the US and China were making "significant progress" in strengthening economic ties. He added that reforms needed by each country "are not in conflict, and the strengths of our economies are still largely complementary".
Indeed, the two countries appear to be focusing on common ground rather than divisive issues.
Chinese Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said in a briefing ahead of these talks that both countries agreed on the direction of yuan reform, even if they disagreed on the pace of change.
Still, US Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about China’s poor human rights record rather than economics.
Mr Biden spoke of vigorous disagreement on the issue, whilst Ms Clinton expressed concern about lawyers and writers being detained or "disappeared" without formal charges laid.
This is the first time the Obama administration has taken a clear-cut position after raising the issue intermittently in the past.
Many wonder however whether the more principled position is due to China’s crackdown since February against a Jasmine Revolution-like uprising, or just a political statement without real consequences.
Beijing has in fact continued its repression despite international protests in favour of well-known dissidents in detention.
State councillor Dai Bingguo said China has made “progress” in the area of human rights. He also encouraged more Americans to visit the mainland to see “the friendship of the Chinese people”.
meanwhile, the heads of 16 US government agencies and representatives of 20 Chinese government departments are set to discuss more difficult issues in order to raise mutual awareness and improve cooperation.
For the first time, US and Chinese officials also discussed cooperation in military affairs, addressing issues like North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes.