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US commerce chief pushes China trade despite ‘complicated relationship’

The top US commercial official says the Biden administration will push for American companies to trade with China even as it takes an increasingly tough posture with Beijing over human rights and national security.

Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce and a member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet, pledged to help US companies to gain access to China’s markets and said she sought to travel there herself once the coronavirus eases.

“There’s no point in talking about decoupling”, Raimondo told reporters on Monday. “As the president has said, we have no interest in a cold war with China. It’s too big of an economy — we want access to their economy, they want access to our economy”.

Raimondo’s remarks come as Washington and Beijing spar over China’s military activity around Taiwan, its treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region and its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.

Earlier this month Biden held his second call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping since be became president in a bid to break the impasse after a meeting in March between top US and Chinese officials ended in acrimony. 

The Biden administration is reviewing Trump-era moves on technology, but the US commerce department has continued to place Chinese companies on the so-called entity list, meaning US companies require a licence to sell them sensitive technologies. 

Raimondo said she wanted to work with Europe to align its restrictions on exports of sensitive technologies to Chinese companies with America’s export control regime, and would continue to discuss the issue this week in Pittsburgh, where US and EU officials are set to discuss trade and supply chain issues. 

She said the US would “have to figure out how to have serious, continuous commercial activity” without undermining national security.

“Unilateral export controls are not effective, because if we tell American companies ‘You’re not allowed to sell such-and-such equipment to such-and-such Chinese company’, but they get the same thing from Europe or a European vendor, well then all we’re doing is hurting American companies and depriving them of that revenue,” said Raimondo, formerly the governor of Rhode Island.

Washington has so far not revealed the results of its review of US trade policy towards China, and has left Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports intact.

Under Trump, the US struck a “phase 1” trade deal with China, pausing a rapidly escalating trade war that rattled global financial markets. Under its terms, China promised to significantly boost purchases of US products including soyabeans and energy commodities.

Data suggest the country is short of the purchasing goals. Raimondo said that China “hasn’t even close to lived up to” its commitments under the deal.

“I am working and will continue to work with the administration to hold China accountable,” she said, adding that she was “clear-eyed” about what is a “complicated relationship”.

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