China is struggling to find people in Washington who can provide insight into the Trump administration’s aggressive moves on trade. One senior American trade official tried to help — and wound up in Beijing with little to do but check out the pottery.
That official, Alan Wolff, a veteran senior adviser to the top United States trade representative and a frequent visitor to Beijing, came to China two weeks ago to speak at a conference on agricultural trade and sought to make contact with top Chinese policymakers.
But they did not respond to his requests for meetings, and they said days later that they had not known who he was. Mr. Wolff, an admirer of ancient pottery, instead spent a quiet Saturday in a Beijing museum browsing 2,200-year-old bowls.
As members of the Trump administration delegation arrived in Beijing on Thursday for two days of high-level talks, they sat across from Chinese officials with limited experience in trade matters.
After a bureaucratic reshuffling, the members of China’s new negotiating team have deep backgrounds in economics and finance, but they are less comfortable with the minutiae of trade laws. And although they are familiar with the American delegation’s main players, they are less acquainted with who does what among lower-level advisers and officials when it comes to United States trade policy.
Both countries have played down the possibility that the negotiations will resolve the simmering tensions between them. Still, Chinese officials’ lack of experience in international trade law could make it even harder for the two sides to find common ground before the talks end on Friday.
“We’re in a situation where the ministry of commerce doesn’t have all the people in place that it wants to have,” said James Zimmerman, a former four-time chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, citing the Chinese agency that traditionally handles trade matters. “I really think they are unprepared for the negotiation that is taking place.”
Chinese officials dispute that characterization, saying the reorganization will not hurt a stance that they describe as tough but flexible.
“I don’t think it is a problem, or that this process of organizational reform will affect the ability to negotiate,” Li Gang, the vice president of the Chinese commerce ministry’s research and training academy, said in a recent interview.
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.
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.
Chinese policymakers are also annoyed about the number of United States agencies involved in the talks. Officials in China are accustomed to dealing with the Treasury, which coordinated American economic policy toward Beijing for nearly two decades. They are less accustomed to dealing with the office of the United States trade representative, which has consistently tilted toward more assertive policies and has a prominent role under President Trump.
The senior Chinese official said he missed the old Treasury-led team every day, and Chinese officials have suggested regularly this year that the United States revive that approach. Doing so could allow Treasury to take charge again, even though United States law says the trade agency should be in charge of trade issues.
On the Chinese side, the rise of economists and bankers is part of a broad reshuffling meant to consolidate the Communist Party’s political power.
As part of the reorganization, China’s commerce ministry was broken in March into three separate groups each focused on different issues. The ministry’s office of trade negotiations still exists and has numerous trade lawyers, but people involved with the negotiations say the shuffling has robbed the office of resources and support.
But even the trade negotiations office has effectively been sidelined by a Communist Party group led by Mr. Liu. The group, now called the Central Commission on the Economy and Finance, was originally intended to bring the country’s debt under control. To accomplish that, Mr. Liu, who was educated at Harvard, has hired dozens of economists and bankers, men and women in their 30s and 40s with graduate degrees from the most highly regarded economics departments and business schools in China and the West.
What the commission largely lacks are trade lawyers.
Chances that the talks would yield major progress appeared slim on Thursday. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, reiterated Beijing’s stance that should a trade war break out, the country was better prepared thanks to its centralized leadership, strong domestic consumer base and greater desire to protect the current structure of trade.
At the seminar over the weekend, Chinese officials also struck a defiant tone. Peng Guangqian, a retired major general who remains an influential military strategist, said, “President Trump wants to curb our development.”