Trump Says He is in No Rush to Complete China Trade Deal

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he was in no rush to complete a trade pact with China and insisted that any deal include protection for intellectual property, a major sticking point between the two sides during months of negotiations.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping had been expected to hold a summit at the president’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida later this month, but no date has been set for a meeting and no in-person talks between their trade teams have been held in more than two weeks.

The president, speaking to reporters at the White House, said he thought there was a good chance a deal would be made, in part because China wanted one after suffering from U.S. tariffs on its goods.

But he acknowledged Xi may be wary of coming to a summit without an agreement in hand after seeing Trump end a separate summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without a peace deal.

“I think President Xi saw that I’m somebody that believes in walking when the deal is not done, and you know there’s always a chance it could happen and he probably wouldn’t want that,” Trump said.

China has not made any public comment confirming Xi is considering going to meet Trump in Florida or elsewhere.

The president, who likes to emphasize his own deal-making abilities, said an agreement to end a months-long trade war could be finished ahead of a presidential meeting or completed in-person with his counterpart.

“We could do it either way. We could have the deal completed and come and sign, or we could get the deal almost completed and negotiate some of the final points. I would prefer that,” he said.

Trump decided last month not to increase tariffs on Chinese goods at the beginning of March, giving a nod to the success of negotiations so far.

But hurdles remain, and intellectual property is one of them. Washington accuses Beijing of forcing U.S. companies to share their intellectual property and transfer their technology to local partners in order to do business in China. Beijing denies it engages in such practices.

Asked on Wednesday if intellectual property had to be included in a trade deal, Trump said: “Yes it does.”

He indicated that from his perspective, a meeting with Xi was still likely.

“I think things are going along very well – we’ll just see what the date is,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

“I’m in no rush. I want the deal to be right. … I am not in a rush whatsoever. It’s got to be the right deal. It’s got to be a good deal for us and if it’s not, we’re not going to make that deal.”

‘Maintaining contact’

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Xi had previously told Trump that he is willing to “maintain contacts” with the U.S. president.

Over the weekend, Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen, who has been deeply involved in the trade talks with the United States, did not answer questions from reporters on whether Xi would go to Mar-a-Lago.

Two Beijing-based diplomatic sources, familiar with the situation, told Reuters that Xi would not be going to Mar-a-Lago, at least in the near term.

One said there had been no formal approach from the United States to China about such a trip, while the second said the problem was that China had realized a trade agreement was not going to be as easy to reach as they had initially thought.

“This is media hype,” said the first source, of reports Xi and Trump could meet this month in Florida.

Though Trump said he is not in a hurry, a trade deal this spring would give him a win to cite as an economic accomplishment as he advances his 2020 re-election campaign. The trade war has hurt the global economy and hung over stock markets, which would likely benefit from an end to the tensions.

In addition to smoothing over sticking points on content, the United States is eager to include a strong enforcement mechanism in a deal to ensure that Beijing can be held accountable if it breaks any of its terms.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who has spearheaded the talks from the American side, said on Tuesday that U.S. officials hoped they were in the final weeks of their talks with China but that major issues remained to be resolved.

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Democrats Cool Toward NAFTA Replacement, Question Labor Standards

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives gave a cool reception to the replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement on Wednesday as the top U.S. trade negotiator opened a  campaign to win broad support for the accord in Congress.

Several Democrats said a closed-door meeting between United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and their caucus failed to ease their concerns about the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement’s (USMCA) provisions on labor, biologic drugs and some other issues.

A USTR spokeswoman declined to comment on the meeting.

The support of Democrats, who control the House, is considered important to passage of the USMCA, and Wednesday’s meeting at the U.S. Capitol signaled that the Trump administration has a lot of work to do to address the party’s concerns.

Democrats questioned whether new labor standards aimed at ensuring workers have the right to organize can be adequately enforced, as this depends partly on Mexico passing new labor laws.

“What you’re hearing is that a lot of people don’t think it’s good enough,” Representative Pramila Jayapal said of USMCA after the meeting, adding that she was concerned the new pact would not solve the biggest shortcoming of NAFTA, which allowed Mexican wages to stagnate.

“We know that when you don’t have strong enforcement provisions, you are essentially facilitating the outsourcing of jobs and bad worker protections and undercutting of U.S. workers,” said Jayapal.

NAFTA dealt with labor provisions in an unenforceable side-letter, allowing unions in Mexico to remain weak and wages low, drawing factories from the United States and Canada.

While USMCA’s labor chapter is part of the trade agreement itself and requires Mexico to adhere to International Labor Organization standards, Democrats questioned whether this could be adequately enforced through a state-to-state dispute settlement mechanism.

The Mexican government expects its Congress to pass a labor bill by the end of April that it says will strengthen the rights of unionized workers and fulfill its commitments under USMCA. Mexico “could say they passed the laws, but the laws could be very weak,” said Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

She said Lighthizer told Democrats that he believed that Mexico’s labor law would meet the terms of the agreement and that any enforcement issues could be resolved through a subsequent agreement following ratification. Jayapal added that Lighthizer said this could be addressed through implementing legislation.

Some Democrats said that Lighthizer listened closely to their concerns and that he would work to address them. 

“He understands the concerns of our caucus and he knows we’re not there yet,” said Representative Bill Pascrell.

Other Democrats raised concerns about the prospect for higher drug prices resulting from the USMCA’s provision for 10 years of data exclusivity for biologic drugs. The United States allows 12 years currently and negotiated a five-year exclusivity period in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which President Donald Trump declined to join in 2017.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat who opposed several previous trade deals, called this an “absolutely unbelievable giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, whose panel will handle the USMCA legislation, said the meeting did not provide any further clarity on the timing of the Trump administration’s submission of implementing legislation to Congress, or when a vote might occur.

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Spotify Files EU Antitrust Complaint Against Apple 

Spotify has filed a complaint with European Union antitrust regulators against Apple, saying the iPhone maker unfairly limits rivals to its own Apple Music streaming service. 

Spotify, which launched a year after the 2007 launch of the iPhone, said on Wednesday that Apple’s control of its App Store deprived consumers of choice and rival providers of audio streaming services to the benefit of Apple Music, which began in 2015. 

Central to Spotify’s complaint, filed with the European Commission on Monday, is what it says is a 30 percent fee Apple charges content-based service providers to use Apple’s in-app purchase system (IAP). 

Forced to raise price

Horacio Gutierrez, Spotify’s general counsel, said the company was pressured into using the billing system in 2014, but then was forced to raise the monthly fee of its premium service from 9.99 to 12.99 euros, just as Apple Music launched at Spotify’s initial 9.99 price. 

Spotify then ceased use of Apple’s IAP system, meaning Spotify customers could only upgrade to the fee-based package indirectly, such as on a laptop. 

Under App Store rules, Spotify said, content-based apps could not include buttons or external links to pages with production information, discounts or promotions and faced difficulties fixing bugs. Such restrictions do not apply to Android phones, it said. 

“Promotions are essential to our business. This is how we convert our free customers to premium,” Gutierrez said. 

Voice recognition system Siri would not hook iPhone users up to Spotify, and Apple declined to let Spotify launch an app on its Apple Watch, Spotify said. 

Spotify declined to say what economic damage it believed it had suffered. 

“We feel confident in the economic analysis we have submitted to the commission that we could have done better than we have done so far,” Gutierrez said. 

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Trade Chief: US Working on Steel, Aluminum Tariff Relief for Mexico, Canada

The United States is working on a plan to lift tariffs from Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum but preserve the gains that domestic producers have received from the duties so far, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said on Tuesday.

“What I’m trying to do is a have a practical solution to a real problem … get rid of tariffs on these two, let them maintain their historic access to the U.S. market which I think will allow us to still maintain the benefit of the steel and aluminum program,” he told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee at a hearing about the World Trade Organization.

The United States imposed the “Section 232” tariffs on steel and aluminum nearly a year ago to protect domestic producers on national security grounds. A plan to lift tariffs on the metals from Canada and Mexico was once linked to the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement but ultimately was excluded from that deal.

Since then, a number of U.S. lawmakers have said they did not believe the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) could win approval in Congress if the metals tariffs — along with and retaliatory duties on U.S. farm and other products — were left in place.

Members of the New Democrat Coalition in the House of Representatives echoed a similar message in a meeting with Lighthizer later on Tuesday.

“Some of us impressed the need to resolve 232 before we have a chance to move forward” on consideration of USMCA, said Representative Ron Kind, a pro-trade Democrat from Wisconsin.

Kind added that Lighthizer expected to meet with Mexican and Canadian counterparts on the issue this week.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office declined to comment, saying there were no scheduling announcements on the 232 issue.

The United States has sought quotas on steel and aluminum in lieu of tariffs, but Canada and Mexico have resisted such restrictions, arguing that they pose no threat to U.S. national security.

A Mexican official said talks were continuing.

“Our position is that we should not have tariffs or quotas.

We have to help the U.S. construct the narrative of why exclusion for Mexico is valid,” added the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and requested anonymity.

Kind cautioned that the Trump administration would need to submit the USMCA enabling legislation soon to Congress so it could be considered before the August recess. After that, it could become caught up in another border wall funding fight in the fall and later the 2020 presidential election campaign, which would diminish its approval chances.

“There’s a lot of work and the clock’s ticking,” Kind added.

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Lopez Obrador Rebuts Finance Ministry over $2.5B Mexico Refinery Funding

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday denied any delay to a flagship refinery project in his home state after the deputy finance minister was quoted as saying $2.5 billion for its construction will be moved to state oil firm Pemex.

The planned investment for the Dos Bocas refinery “can go to exploration and production” for Pemex, Arturo Herrera told the Financial Times in an interview during a trip to London for meetings with investors.

However, Lopez Obrador stood by his plan to build the refinery within three years, saying the tender could be unveiled next week. In answer to a question about whether the $2.5 billion would be spent this year on the refinery, said “Yes.”

The president’s plans to fast-track construction of the new refinery in Tabasco, his home state, have concerned investors that it would take away much-needed resources from Pemex, which is creaking under $106 billion of debt.

His energy minister, Rocio Nahle, said she understood Herrera’s budget concerns but said the project was on track.

“The faster we do this project, the cheaper it will be,” she said on Mexican radio.

The conflicting statements appeared to confuse investors.

Mexico’s benchmark stock index reversed gains and weakened 0.7 percent after Lopez Obrador’s rebuttal of Herrera’s comments, while the peso pared gains.

“Contradictions within the federal government do not help financial markets,” said James Salazar, an economist at bank CI Banco.

The government is under growing pressure to dispel doubts Pemex can successfully manage more than $16 billion of debt payments due by the end of next year, halt the firm’s extended oil output slide and avert a threatened credit rating downgrade to “junk.”

Finance minister Carlos Urzua said last week the government would announce new measures to support the ailing company, after unveiling a $3.9 billion bailout in February that failed to impress ratings agencies.

Herrera said the government was in talks with the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral organizations about structuring a fresh capital injection for Pemex, though he noted that those discussions were technical and no borrowing was involved, according to the Financial Times.

Lopez Obrador said it was very likely the government would make an announcement about tenders for the refinery on March 18, a national holiday that celebrates the 1938 nationalization of Mexico’s oil industry.

He also predicted Pemex would reverse its output decline by next year, with “new wells” coming on line by December under a production plan that allows Pemex to hire service companies to help explore mature fields.

He repeated that the refinery would cost between $6 billion and $8 billion, and said that work for now was focused on preparing the ground at the refinery site and readying the framework for the tender.

The refinery has already hit obstacles after the proposed construction site was cleared of protected mangrove without the correct environmental permits. The government has yet to present an environmental impact assessment for the wildlife-rich site.

Herrera said the tender framework was being prepared, but said the finance ministry needed to see a solid financial plan before releasing funds.

“We will not authorize (construction) until we have a final figure that is not very different from the original $8 billion,” said Herrera.

($1 = 19.3083 Mexican pesos)

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Official: US Plans ‘Very Significant’ Additional Venezuela Sanctions

The United States is preparing to impose “very significant” Venezuela-related sanctions against financial institutions in the coming days, U.S. special envoy Elliott Abrams said on Tuesday.

Abrams did not elaborate on the fresh measures but his warning came a day after the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Russian bank Evrofinance Mosnarbank for helping Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA evade U.S. financial restrictions.

Abrams said Washington was also preparing to withdraw more U.S. visas from Venezuelans with close ties to President Nicolas Maduro.

Washington has taken the lead in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president after the 35-year-old Congress chief declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud and announced an interim presidency in January. Most countries in Europe and Latin America have followed suit.

Abrams’ comments came as Venezuela ordered American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours.

Washington said it had decided to withdraw the remaining diplomats due to deteriorating conditions in Venezuela, which has been plunged into its worst blackout on record.

Abrams emphasized that the withdrawal of diplomats was not a change in U.S. policy.

“This does not represent any change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela, nor does it represent any reduction in the commitment we have to the people of Venezuela and to their struggle for democracy,” he said, adding that the U.S. intended to keep up pressure on Maduro through sanctions.

“You will see very soon a significant number of additional visa revocations. You will see in the coming days some very significant additional sanctions,” Abrams added.

He said the United States was in talks with other countries that could act as its “protecting power” in Venezuela to ensure the safety of the U.S. embassy’s premises and provide assistance to Americans in trouble.

A “protecting power” is a country that represents another in cases where two countries have broken off diplomatic relations.

Washington, for example, has appointed Switzerland as its “protecting power” in Iran.

“We are trying to decide on a protecting power,” Abrams said.

He said the safety of U.S. diplomats was a key factor in the withdrawal decision reached by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the late hours of Monday night.

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Pawn Business Growing in US

You never know what you will find in a pawnshop. 

Where else can you find a snow blower parked next to a mink jacket? Or an ornate 19th century mantle clock from France next to modern-day laptop computers?

At Top Dollar Pawn in Waldorf, Maryland, a man comes in wanting to sell the gold caps from his deceased grandfather’s teeth. While some would be taken aback, the affable store manager Stuffie Carroll is not. “This happens all the time,” he said, as he explains to the customer that the store would only buy the gold after it had been removed from the teeth.

Top Dollar owner Michael Cohen, who has two pawnshops in Maryland outside Washington, DC, buys and sells “anything of value,” which includes high-end jewelry, musical instruments, and power tools. His biggest seller is the jewelry he says, as he shows off an assortment of diamond rings and gold necklaces.

While sales bring in money, pawn shops make most of their income through cash loans to customers in exchange for an item of value. There is also interest on the loan that is higher than a bank rate. If the money is repaid in 30 days, then the customer gets their item back; otherwise the store keeps it for resale. Eighty-five percent pay back the loan.

For people without credit or other financial resources, pawn shops can help them get the money they need. The average loan is $150.

“In a lot of cases people don’t have any other outlet to get the money they need to get through the week to buy diapers for their babies, put gas in the car, or pay the electric bill,” said Top Dollar Manager, Mike Thomen. He said customers often talk to him about their problems and he “encourages them when they’re down on their luck.”

Long gone are the days when pawn shops were considered seedy places, where only people down on their luck went to. Today’s pawn shops, mostly independently owned, look more like a brightly lit, welcoming second-hand store.

“The pawn shop is the new cool place to come into, the new chic place,” said Eric Rizer, the owner of three stores in northern Virginia called Royal Pawn. “We have tons of different stuff like artwork, antiques, rugs, and sports memorabilia.”

“Customer service is a huge part of our business,” Cohen said, “and hopefully that keeps people wanting to come back to us.”

Like regular customer Anthony Ruggaero who is pawning some tools.

“I came to pawn a few times to pay for my wedding, which is in 3 months,” he explained. “I bought my fiancé’s wedding ring here last week. I have my own business, so as soon as checks come in to help me pay for expenses, I’ll buy my stuff back.”

Hidden treasures

It’s estimated that 30 million people visit the 11,000 pawn shops in the United States every year, perhaps finding some hidden treasures. 

“We had an original Picasso,” said Rizer. “We actually had a bird head that I sold to a man for $500.” Later Rizer discovered that the bird had been extinct for more than 100 years, and the head was valued at $20,000.

He says worn vintage guitars are finding a new market.

“These beat up guitars are called reliced,” he said. “People go absolutely nuts over them just because they look like they’re worn from being out on the road.”

Including customer Austen Ballard, a music producer at MMP Studios in Burke, Virginia. 

“It’s so much fun to pick up an old instrument from the 1950s or 60s. You never know where a guitar’s been. It might be on a record you’ve heard on the radio.”

Cohen said his business has taken a hit from second-hand merchandise internet sales. Although he realizes more pawn shops may have to start selling items on the internet to survive, he thinks the brick or mortar stores are here to stay. 

“There’s people who go from pawn shop to pawn shop looking for a good deal. We definitely have our regulars that like to bargain with us every week.”

Like customer Keith Winslow who haggles over the price of some power tools.

“I want to talk to the people I’m buying products from,” he said. I don’t want something from online that may not be exactly what I want.”

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China Tweaks Tech Supremacy Plan

For the first time in recent years, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s annual Government Work Report did not mention Made in China 2025, the country’s ambitious plan to achieve high-tech dominance, and that has analysts asking whether Beijing is going to completely overhaul the plan or keep it going quietly behind the scenes.

Made in China 2025 relies heavily on government subsidies to Chinese companies and their ability to acquire new technologies covering 10 different sectors such as electric cars, emerging bio-medicine, next-generation information technology, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.

The plan is part of China’s broader industrial policy outlined in the 13th Five-Year plan, which lays out government goals from 2016-2020. It raised concerns, however, because of China’s use of forced technology transfers and specific targets to capture market share by 2025.

The plan has been a focus of discussion between U.S. and Chinese negotiators, with Washington demanding an end to subsidies given to local companies under the plan. The United States also wanted China to do away with unfair trade practices that include the forcible transfer of technology from foreign companies.

A significant portion of technologies used in China in the 10 listed sectors come from foreign sources.

But the government is now amending laws that will leave Chinese companies in a somewhat difficult situation. It is also expected to cut subsidies it gives to local companies in order to overcome objections raised by the United States during the trade war.

New laws and policy changes that the government is bringing on during the ongoing sessions of China’s legislature, or National People’s Congress (NPC), would seriously affect its ability to acquire foreign technology.

“China will suffer in the short run but in the medium run they seem to be fine,” said Lourdes Casanova, director at Cornell’s Emerging Markets Institute.

To a great extent, Chinese companies have used three means to acquire technology: the use of borrowed or stolen ideas, the forcible transfer of know-how from foreign partners and the purchase of foreign companies.

Acquisitions by Chinese companies have now become problematic because of growing cautiousness and recent legislation in the United States and European Union.

Some analysts believe there were design defects in the 2025 plan itself, and the government has been rethinking it for some time now.

“The original 2025 plan was too nationalistic and too top down. It was wasteful,” Mats Harborn, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, told VOA.

“They [government leaders] thought technology should be owned by Chinese companies. There was a ‘we can do this on our own’ attitude,”

“There is a shift or maturity in understanding. There is an understanding that China cannot do all things on its own. It has to use international value chains and integrate as much as possible,” Harborn said.

New information emerging now suggests there has been a struggle within the government about the suitability of this grandiose plan.

“It [the strategy] should not have been done that way anyway. I was against it from the start, I did not agree very much with it,” Lou Jiwei, China’s finance minister between 2013 and 2016, said on the sidelines of the legislative meeting in Beijing.

Other legislators told VOA the government is making adjustments in accordance with public opinion.

Putting less emphasis on Made in China 2025 “reflects a more rational approach by the government, to reduce unnecessary obstacles, noises and reaction, to keep moving forward in a positive direction,” said Tang Nong, a NPC delegate from Guangxi.

“The government is moving forward with the 13th Five-Year plan. What is Made in China 2025, is it a plan or a broad outline?” asked Sun Xianzhong, an NPC delegate and professor of international law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Analysts believe the government may revamp and repackage the plan, but it is unlikely to soften its efforts.

“The government remains committed to moving China’s economy up the value chain and will continue to use a variety of active industrial policies to achieve this goal,” said Duncan Innes-Ker, regional director for Asia at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Harborn believes the government will shift from the idea of acquiring new technologies to absorbing them in the industrial value chain.

“This is a wakeup call. The new focus will be on integrating the best technologies at the best price and creating the best final product or service,” he said.

State owned companies in China may be better able to readjust themselves if the 2025 plan is revamped because their focus is more on revenues than on profit.

“For a state-owned company, profits going down in favor of revenues or jobs, so what’s the problem? They are fine,” said Casanova adding, “Profits are less or not of primary consideration.”




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