US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin. Picture: REUTERS
US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin. Picture: REUTERS

Beijing — US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was looking forward to trade talks with China on Thursday, as discussions in Beijing moved to a higher level, in a push to de-escalate a tariff war ahead of a March 1 deadline for a deal.

The talks, scheduled to run to the end of Friday, follow three days of deputy-level meetings to work out technical details, including a mechanism for enforcing any trade agreement.

"Looking forward to discussions today," Mnuchin told reporters without elaborating as he left his hotel.

He and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer opened the meetings shortly afterward at the Diaoyutai state guest house with Chinese vice-premier Liu He, the top economic adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

US tariffs on $200bn worth of imports from China are scheduled to rise to 25% from 10% if the two sides don't reach a deal by the deadline, increasing pressure and costs in sectors from consumer electronics to agriculture.

US President Donald Trump told reporters on Wednesday that the negotiations had been progressing "very well".

Trump's advisers have described March 1 as a "hard deadline", and the president has said a delay was possible though he preferred not to do so.

A Bloomberg report cited sources saying Trump was considering pushing back the deadline by 60 days to give negotiators more time.

Countering that, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of China's nationalist Global Times tabloid, tweeted that speculation on an extension was "inaccurate", citing a source close to talks.

Chinese commerce ministry spokesperson Gao Feng told reporters he had no information on the trade talks' progress, but would say once there was an update.

Trump has said he did not expect to meet Xi prior to March 1, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has raised the possibility of a meeting between the leaders at the president's personal retreat at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said she noted that Trump had said many times he wished to meet Xi, and that China was willing to maintain "close contact" with the US side, but said she had no information to share on any visit by Xi.

US department of agriculture deputy secretary Stephen Censky said on Wednesday that the two presidents were expected to meet "sometime in March," but no dates were set.

Chinese trade data released on Thursday showed imports from the US fell 41.2% from a year earlier to $9.24bn, the lowest amount in dollar terms since February 2016.

Exports to the US also declined 2.4% to $36.54bn, the lowest amount since April 2018.

China's trade surplus with the US narrowed to $27.3bn in January, from $29.87bn in December.