U.S. presses China over currency in economy talks

Chinese President Hu Jintao, left, shakes hand with U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner during the opening ceremony of the U.S.- China Strategic and Economic Dialogue at The Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing, Thursday, May 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Vincent Thian

(AP) BEIJING - U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner urged Beijing to let China's tightly controlled currency rise in value amid strains over trade and industrial policy at a high-level economic dialogue Thursday.

Beijing has allowed the yuan to rise gradually but Washington and other trading partners complain it still is undervalued, giving Chinese exporters an unfair advantage and hurting foreign competitors. Some American lawmakers are calling for punitive tariffs on Chinese goods if Beijing fails to act faster.

This week's talks, overshadowed by a diplomatic tussle over a blind Chinese legal activist, come as a weak global economy and pressure on governments of developed countries to reduce unemployment are fueling trade complaints against China.

China economy sends mixed signals

Washington considers "particularly important" the promise of a stronger yuan in China's latest five-year economic development plan, Geithner said in prepared remarks for the opening of the two days of talks.

In more pointed language last month, Geithner complained an undervalued yuan was a source of "unfair competition." He called for a "stronger, more market-determined" exchange rate and said that would help the global economy.

Chinese officials have said, however, that future gains by the yuan are likely to be limited, setting up a possible clash with Washington. Premier Wen Jiabao said in March the currency might have reached an "equilibrium exchange rate."

The United States reported its trade deficit with China reached an all-time high of $295.5 billion last year, up 8.2 percent from 2010's previous record.

The U.S. Commerce Department announced last month it would impose new import fees on Chinese-made solar panels after concluding manufacturers received improper subsidies. Chinese authorities announced their own probe in November into whether U.S. support for renewable energy companies hurts foreign suppliers.

China's envoy to the economic talks, Vice Premier Wang Qishan, called on Washington to ease controls on exports of high-tech goods. Such controls are imposed on "dual-use" goods such as supercomputers with possible military applications. U.S. officials have said relaxing them would do little to change the trade balance.

"The global economic recovery remains sluggish and the situation is grim and complicated," Wang said.

"We must continue to enhance coordination of macro-economic policies, work together to meet global challenges, and ensure economic growth and job creation in both our countries so as to contribute to a strong and sustainable recovery of the world economy."

Wang called for more U.S. cooperation with Chinese companies on building highways, ports and other infrastructure. China's construction companies have built dams, roads and bridges in Africa and developing Asian countries and say they want to expand into European and U.S. markets.

Geithner expressed support for China's plans to overhaul its financial system to increase support for private enterprise and reduce special treatment for state-owned companies. He said the plans reflect Beijing's recognition that it has to rely more on private sector innovation and allow more competition from foreign companies.

"The United States has a strong interest in the success of these reforms," he said.

In his speech last month in San Francisco, Geithner complained Beijing's support for state industry with low-cost loans, land and resources "hurts U.S. companies and workers who compete with these firms."