China seeks trade firewall with U.S. allies in rush of ambassador meetings - sources
* France, Germany, UK, EU, held talks with China trade
* Diplomats say China may have underestimated Trump's
* Atmosphere of talks was mostly "non-confrontational" -
* There were "subliminal threats" about foreign companies -
By Michael Martina and Robin Emmott
BEIJING/BRUSSELS, April 17 (Reuters) - China's international
trade representative held a series of meetings with the
ambassadors from major European nations last week to ask them to
stand together with Beijing against U.S. protectionism,
according to four sources familiar with the discussions.
Some of the western diplomats involved in the meetings with
Fu Ziying, who is also a vice-commerce minister, have viewed the
approaches as a sign of how anxious Beijing is getting about the
expanding conflict with Washington, the sources said.
U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to impose
tariffs on $150 billion in Chinese imports to the U.S. to punish
China for what U.S. government officials regard as its predatory
industrial policies and abuse of U.S. intellectual property.
Beijing has vowed to retaliate.
Amid the rapidly rising tensions between the two sides,
China has sought to seize the moral high ground as a defender of
the multilateral trade system, even as U.S. allies express
shared concern with Washington over Beijing's highly restricted
The rush of meetings last Thursday and Friday with
ambassadors from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain,
Italy, and the European Union, may be a signal that China is
trying to build a firewall against Trump's aggressive trade
measures, the severity of which some foreign diplomats said
Beijing had miscalculated.
The individual meetings, which were called by Fu, were
generally "non-confrontational" as China sought support in
countering the United States, a European diplomat with knowledge
of the discussions told Reuters. There were, though, some
"subliminal threats" about consequences for foreign companies,
this person said.
"The message was that we have to stand together against U.S.
protectionism in favour of free trade," the diplomat said.
"China is showing confidence, but internally they appear
quite concerned. They have apparently underestimated Trump's
resolve on trade," the diplomat said, adding that Beijing is
nervous about China's major trading partners siding with
Three other diplomatic sources, and three embassies,
confirmed that the meetings occurred.
An Italian embassy spokeswoman said its ambassador met with
Fu on April 12, and that while the U.S.-China trade dispute was
discussed, the meeting was mostly about bilateral issues.
A British embassy spokeswoman also confirmed that its
ambassador met with Fu last week as part of regular discussions
with the ministry that touched on "bilateral and multilateral
An EU Delegation spokesman said its ambassador attended a
meeting with Fu, but did not elaborate.
A German embassy spokesman declined to comment, and the
other embassies did not respond immediately to requests for
China's Commerce Ministry also did not respond to a request
"SMACKS OF DESPERATION"
The Chinese government's top diplomat Wang Yi, during a
visit to Tokyo on Monday, urged Japan to work together with
China to oppose protectionism, though foreign officials say that
China is not naive enough to think that it could fully drive a
wedge between Washington and its allies.
One senior EU diplomat in Brussels who confirmed the
meetings said the EU was not in the business of taking sides,
and that its goal was to get the multilateral process back on
track, referring to efforts to resolve trade disputes through
"I think it also smacks of desperation because China also
knows that the European Union is not going to confront its
biggest ally," the EU diplomat said of the meetings.
"China has been very effective at making the most of the
free-trading rule book. I don't think anyone in the West is
going to leave it to China to set new ones," the Brussels-based
Trade policy for members of the EU is handled by the
European Commission, not by individual member states.
Another western diplomat in Beijing, who was speaking on
condition of anonymity, said China's outreach to European
countries had begun even before Trump announced 25 percent
tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese industrial technology,
transport and medical products in early April.
When Beijing responded within hours with its intention to
levy similar duties on $50 billion worth of U.S. soybeans,
planes, cars, beef and chemicals, Trump then escalated the
dispute by instructing his administration to identify another
$100 billion worth of Chinese goods to penalise.
None of these threatened duties have yet gone into effect.
U.S. business groups argue that Trump should form a
coalition with the EU, Japan and other western nations to push
China to open its economy. They say that these countries share
Washington's consternation over Chinese market restrictions and
its policies to produce national champion companies in key
industries at the expense of foreign competitors.
However, instead of reaching out to its European allies,
Washington has alienated them with its protectionist moves,
including its targeting of European countries with tariffs on
steel and aluminium exports to the U.S.
The EU has said the U.S. steel and aluminium tariffs are
unjustified and is seeking compensation from the United States
at the World Trade Organization.
(Reporting by Michael Martina, Tony Munroe, and Ben Blanchard
in BEIJING, and Robin Emmott in BRUSSELS
Editing by Martin Howell)
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