China welcomes currency decision ahead of trade deal with U.S.

BEIJING — China on Tuesday welcomed a U.S. decision ahead of the signing of a trade deal with Beijing to drop it from a list of governments accused of manipulating the value of their currencies to gain an unfair advantage in trade.

Just two days ahead of the planned signing of the interim agreement meant to help resolve a tariff war over Chinese technology and trade, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Beijing had made “enforceable commitments to refrain from competitive devaluation.”

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, repeated an official promise not to devalue China’s yuan as a weapon in trade disputes and said Beijing was committed to reforming its currency and foreign exchange rules to keep the yuan at a “reasonable and balanced level.”

“China has never been a currency manipulator. The latest conclusion of the U.S. side is in line with the facts and the consensus of the international community,” Geng said.

Earlier Tuesday, the government reported that China’s global exports ended 2019 up 0.5% despite the tariff war with Washington.

Exports to the United States fell 12.5% compared with 2018 to $418.5 billion following President Donald Trump’s tariff hikes on Chinese goods, customs data showed Tuesday. December sales to the U.S. market contracted 14.5% from a year earlier to $34.4 billion despite the interim agreement and conciliatory comments by both sides.

Still, the impact of Trump’s tariff hikes in a fight over Beijing’s technology ambitions and trade surplus has been smaller than forecasters expected. U.S. exports to China have fallen.

Famously resilient Chinese exporters have pursued other markets, stepping up sales to Asia, Europe and Africa. China reported double-digit gains in 2019 exports to France, Canada, Australia, Brazil and Southeast Asia.

Global exports rose 7.8% in December over a year earlier to $237.7 billion, rebounding from a 1.1% contraction in November. Imports surged 16.3% to $190.9 billion.

Imports from the United States in 2019 fell 20.9% from a year earlier to $122.7 billion despite Beijing’s December decision to lift punitive duties on soybeans — the biggest American export to China — and pork.

Investors hope the preliminary agreement due to be signed this week in Washington will be a step toward ending the dispute threatening global economic growth.

“Slow global trade will continue to challenge China’s external outlook in the near term. But the ‘Phase 1’ trade deal with the U.S. will have a favourable impact,” said Tommy Wu of Oxford Economics in a report.

Under the deal, Washington postponed planned tariff hikes and Beijing agreed to buy more American farm exports. Economists warn the agreement fails to address contentious disputes that might take years to resolve.

“The risk of relations deteriorating again and tariffs ‘snapping back’ is substantial against a background of tension and mistrust,” Wu said.

Forecasters cautioned that December’s numbers were less rosy than they appeared because they benefit from the “base effect” of comparison with 2018’s anemic trade, which was depressed by the trade war.

December marked the first month since July with positive Chinese trade growth.

The decision to lift punitive duties on U.S. soybeans and pork would help to ease the strain on Chinese consumers and farmers as Beijing tries to rebuild its pork industry following a disease outbreak that caused shortages and soaring prices.

“In December, imports of U.S. soybeans and pork increased significantly,” said Zou Zhiwu, deputy director-general of the General Administration of Customs, at a news conference.

Zou said imports of American-made autos, another product targeted for punitive tariffs that later were lifted, rose 50% to 23,000 vehicles.

Exports to the European Union rose 6.6% to $40.1 billion.

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