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China's president offers U.S. possible trade concessions

China's President Xi Jinping at the Boao Forum

China's President Xi Jinping at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference in Boao in south China's Hainan province on Tuesday. Credit: AP / Naohiko Hatta

President Xi Jinping promised Tuesday to cut China's auto tariffs and improve intellectual property protection in possible concessions aimed at defusing a worsening dispute with Washington over trade and technology that investors worry could set back the global economic recovery.

Speaking at a business conference, Xi made no direct mention of his American counterpart, Donald Trump, or the dispute. He promised progress on areas that are U.S. priorities, including opening China's banking industry and boosting imports, but didn't address key irritants for Washington such as a requirement for foreign companies to work through joint ventures that require them to give technology to potential local competitors.

Private sector analysts saw Xi's speech as an overture to help end the biggest trade dispute since World War II. It has fueled fears of a global economic chill if other nations respond with their own import barriers.

Markets surged in response in Asia, Europe and also in the U.S., where the Dow jumped 428.90 points Tuesday.

Xi tried to position China as a defender of free trade and cooperation, despite its status as the most-closed major economy, in response to Trump's "America first" calls for import restrictions and trade deals that are more favorable to the United States.

"China's door of opening up will not be closed and will only open wider," said Xi at the Boao Forum for Asia on the southern island of Hainan.

Xi said Beijing will "significantly lower" tariffs on auto imports this year and ease restrictions on foreign ownership in the auto industry "as soon as possible."

Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on Chinese goods worth $50 billion in response to complaints Beijing pressures foreign companies to hand over technology in violation of its World Trade Organization market-opening commitments. Beijing fired back with its own $50 billion list of U.S. goods for possible retaliation.

The Chinese leader promised to encourage "normal technological exchange" and to "protect the lawful ownership rights of foreign enterprises."

"President Xi's speech could create a very good platform to launch U.S.-China dialogue at the WTO to find a deal on intellectual property rights," said economist Rajiv Biswas of IHS Markit in a report. "This would be a victory for the world trading system and an important step away from the abyss of rising global protectionism."

Jake Parker, the vice president for China of the U.S.-China Business Council, which represents companies that deal with China, welcomed Xi's announcement but expressed hope for additional steps such as ending requirements for joint ventures and technology licensing.

"Ultimately, U.S. industry will be looking for implementation of long-stalled economic reforms, but actions to date have greatly undermined the optimism of the U.S. business community," Parker said in an email.

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