As U.S. and Chinese Teams Meet on Trade, One Side Has an Edge in Expertise

The new team of top Chinese negotiators, few of whom come from the commerce ministry, is led by Liu He. Mr. Liu, an economist by training, is a close adviser and longtime friend of President Xi Jinping. Senior Chinese officials and their advisers spoke about economic policy at a three-day Tsinghua University seminar that ended on Monday. Most of them insisted on anonymity for reasons of diplomatic sensitivity.

Those attending the seminar said that Chinese negotiators had a warm relationship with Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who is a member of the American delegation and a former Goldman Sachs executive. He was described as easy to talk to.

Chinese officials said they felt less of a connection to the rest of the group, which includes, among others, Robert E. Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, who was described as brusque by people on the Chinese side; Peter Navarro, a top trade adviser and longtime critic of China; Larry Kudlow, who leads the National Economic Council; and Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary.

[Read about the divisions on the American side of the table during high-level trade talks in Beijing.]

Many of the negotiators representing the United States are more comfortable than their Chinese counterparts with the fine points of trade policy. Mr. Lighthizer, for example, has been immersed in trade issues continuously since the Carter administration, working closely throughout with Mr. Wolff, and has taken a harder stance.

By contrast, after a series of bureaucratic reorganizations in recent months, many of China’s top trade negotiators are now economists and bankers with little practical experience in trade matters. The commerce ministry’s two main officials for trade talks with the United States, veterans who have negotiated with Washington since the 1990s, were each awarded ambassadorships last year and dispatched to Europe.

One senior Chinese official at the seminar who insisted on anonymity said there was deep frustration among his colleagues that, when the two sides talked in the past, American negotiators continually raised details about Chinese trade practices and international trade laws, while those on the Chinese side preferred to discuss a coherent economic strategy.