President Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. and China have reached an "understanding" on a deal that would eliminate tariffs on certain high-tech goods.
Obama said that the breakthrough would help bring talks on expansion of the global Information Technology Agreement to a "rapid conclusion." Obama made the announcement during a meeting with leaders attending an Asia-Pacific economic summit in Beijing.
U.S. officials told the Associated Press that the progress with China includes an agreement to eliminate tariffs on goods like medical devices, global positioning systems, and video game consoles. The White House did not put a specific timeline on finalizing a broader agreement through the World Trade Organization.
Talks over the ITA broke down last summer due to disagreements over what products would be covered by an expanded deal. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman says the deal would mark the first major tariff reduction agreement by the WTO in 17 years. According to the U.S. government, the ITA now covers over $4 trillion in annual trade.
The understanding was the latest in a flurry of agreements reached ahead of the opening of the APEC summit. On the eve of the gathering, Beijing announced a free-trade agreement with South Korea. Also Monday, regulators approved a plan to open Chinese stock markets wider to foreign investors by linking exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai. That followed the weekend announcement of a $40 billion Chinese-financed fund to improve trade links between Asian economies.
Obama, meanwhile, opened two days of talks Tuesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, telling the Chinese leader he wants to take their relationship to "a new level."
Later Tuesday, APEC leaders agreed to launch a two-year study toward possible adoption of a free-trade deal proposed by Beijing. Xi called the decision a "historic step."
U.S. trade officials say the two proposals are not competitors. But they want Beijing to wrap up a U.S.-Chinese investment treaty in addition to the agreement to lower barriers to trade in information technology. Washington and some other governments argued the Chinese proposal would be a distraction at APEC but Beijing made it the centerpiece of the meeting.
On Monday, Obama insisted Washington sees no threat from Beijing's growing economic and political status.
"The United States welcomes the rise of a prosperous, peaceful and stable China," the American leader said in a speech at the business conference.
Still, American officials chafe at Beijing's insistence on promoting its proposed trade pact at a time when progress on a U.S.-led initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has stalled.
The TPP includes the United States, Japan and 10 other countries, but excludes China. Few details have been released but its promoters say it would reduce or eliminate tariffs on most goods among the member countries. That might hurt China by encouraging member countries to trade more with each other.
Leaders of the nations involved in TPP talks, including the United States, Mexico, Japan and Australia, met Monday and issued a statement saying they were making progress. The talks have been delayed repeatedly by disputes over the sweeping nature of its market-opening proposals.
"We have instructed our ministers and negotiators to make concluding this agreement a top priority," the statement said.
The initiative promoted by Beijing is less ambitious and is aimed at reducing conflict among overlapping trade agreements between pairs of Asia-Pacific economies.
It is a logical response to being excluded from the TPP, said Li Wei, an economist at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing.
"If the U.S. doesn't want China to join the TPP, then China can form its own trade groups," said Li.
Li also pointed to limits on access to U.S. markets for some Chinese technology companies such as Huawei Technologies Ltd., a maker of network switching gear, on security grounds.
"The world, with the U.S. leading, is retreating from free trade. It is moving into protectionism," said Li. "If the U.S. is saying, I should be careful about who I have free trade with, then China should take a more liberalizing role."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.