Chinese Premier Li Keqiang . Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ANDREA VERDELLI
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang . Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ANDREA VERDELLI

Beijing — Deep differences separate Chinese and US negotiators on everything from market access to industrial subsidies as the two sides prepare to meet in Washington in October.

As their trade talks unravelled in acrimony in May, the US blamed China for walking back alleged commitments on issues including forced technology transfers. China responded in a White Paper, accusing the US of unreasonable demands and argued that it had made “remarkable progress” in improving its business environment.

So just how much has China done since the two began locking horns in 2018 over trade and technology? China analysts say the pace of market-driven change has quickened slightly as a result of US President Donald Trump’s trade war.

Here is the state of play in four crucial areas where the two sides remain at odds:

Market access

Forty percent of European companies say China has improved market access, according to a business confidence survey by the European Chamber of Commerce in China published in May. A revision of the negative list for foreign investment in June 2018 was the biggest step forward, reducing the number of sectors that were restricted or prohibited, along with timelines for removing ownership caps in the financial services and car industries, the EU Chamber said.

The most recent progress came in July, when Premier Li Keqiang said China will bring forward by a year to 2020 plans to remove foreign ownership limits on financial companies from securities to futures and life insurance firms.

Still, the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in China said in a paper in 2019 that market access restrictions still affect more than half of its members, with challenges particularly acute in technology and research and development-intensive sectors, where more than 75% of its members report issues.

Intellectual property

While many US companies acknowledge China’s efforts to improve intellectual property (IP) protection laws and their enforcement in recent years, especially with respect to trademark and brand protection, they still feel China’s safeguards come up short, said AmCham.

An amendment to the Trademark Law in April that increased compensation for infringements “got at specific issues of concern for foreign companies”, said AmCham. An intellectual property appeals mechanism introduced at the Supreme People’s Court level was also positive.

Still, China points to surging royalty payments for intellectual property rights as evidence it is heading in the right direction.

China was ranked 52nd out of 125 countries in 2018 by the International Property Rights Index, unchanged from the previous year but up from 55th in 2016.

Forced technology transfers

The Chinese government denies allegations that it strong arms foreign companies into parting with their technologies as “utterly unfounded”. Still, there has been a rapid-fire series of legal changes that appear designed to help it reach a trade deal with the US

A new foreign investment law scheduled to take effect in 2020 will ban administrative agencies from forcing technology transfers. It also includes the possibility of criminal penalties for officials who disclose or leak trade secrets gleaned from regulatory approvals. The law was approved in March after just a matter of months, a process that usually takes years. A revision to the Administrative Licensing Law approved in April also prohibits officials from disclosing trade secrets and confidential information.

That still is not enough for US officials, who say China has committed to changes before but not followed through. The EU chamber reported in May that the new foreign investment law “contains broad terms and vague language throughout” that create “uncertainty that damages business confidence”.

Industrial policies

This is arguably the thorniest issue of all because China’s ambition to catch up and challenge the world in hi-tech industries is founded in its state-led and state-financed industrial policies.

The government’s policy tone has shifted as attitudes of some foreign nations toward China harden. In his March work report, Premier Li promised “competitive neutrality’’ so that state and private companies would be “treated on an equal footing’’ and given equal market access.

Policymakers are also improving the way they present their plans to the world. As a result, the Made in China 2025 blueprint, a subsidy-driven plan to turn the country into a global powerhouse of advanced technologies that riled the Trump administration, has disappeared from public view.

So far though, there is scant evidence that China has changed its subsidy-driven approach to industrial advancement. On the contrary, Xi has urged China to double down on efforts to promote self-reliance.

“In the wake of China’s tremendous growth in size, global reach and competitiveness, it must increasingly meet the levels of economic openness of other advanced economies,’’ said Daniel Rosen, a partner at Rhodium Group, a New York-based economic-research firm that specialises in China. “That has simply not been happening.’’