(Updates with comments from Reuters interview)
By David Lawder
FUKUOKA, Japan, June 8 (Reuters) - A highly anticipated late June meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping has some parallels with their Buenos Aires summit last December that postponed a tariff hike, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Saturday.
Mnuchin told Reuters in an interview that the U.S.-China trade dispute was at a similar point in December 2018, when Trump and Xi met on the sidelines of a G20 summit, with a U.S. tariff increase about to kick in on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods.
As this year’s June 28-29 G20 summit in Osaka, Japan approaches, Trump is preparing to launch 25% tariffs on virtually all Chinese imports so far untouched by the two countries’ tariff war, a $300 billion list of consumer goods including cell phones, computers and clothing.
“As it relates to the higher tariffs, if you just recall where we were in Buenos Aires, they were going to go up,” Mnuchin said. “They were scheduled to go up, and as a result of that meeting, the president agreed not to raise them while we were negotiating,” Mnuchin said.
Asked whether he thought a similar outcome would result from the meeting in Osaka - Trump agreeing to forestall the tariffs while negotiations resume - Mnuchin said: “That’s the president’s decision.”
Trump said on Thursday in France that he will decide whether to proceed with the tariffs after the meeting with Xi.
The Buenos Aires summit paved the way for five months of talks aimed at ending a festering trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
But these talks broke down in early May, and no face-to-face meetings have been held since May 10, the day that Trump sharply increased tariffs on a $200 billion list of Chinese goods to 25% - the increase that he delayed after the Buenos Aires meeting.
Since then, acrimonious rhetoric and trade threats between Beijing and Washington have steadily increased, especially after the United States imposed severe sanctions against Huawei Technologies Co, China’s premier telecommunications equipment firm.
Mnuchin told Reuters that the Huawei sanctions were “completely separate” from the U.S.-China trade dispute.
Earlier, Mnuchin said at a news briefing that the Osaka meeting, yet to be confirmed by the Chinese side, was where the “main progress” could be made towards reviving talks to end the U.S.-China trade conflict.
Mnuchin downplayed expectations for a meeting expected on Sunday with People’s Bank of China Governor Yi Gang on the sidelines of a G20 finance leaders meeting in Fukuoka, Japan.
The U.S. Treasury chief said that while he would discuss trade issues with Yi, “this is not a negotiating meeting.”
The Trump administration was comfortable with any outcome from the negotiations, Mnuchin said, adding that more tariffs would encourage companies to move their operations out of China.
“If we can get the right agreement, that’s great. If we can’t get the right agreement, we will proceed with tariffs,” Mnuchin said.
Mnuchin said the United States and China were about 90 percent of the way toward reaching “an historic agreement” before China backtracked on certain commitments. He said that if China wants to resume the negotiations on the basis of the texts prior to an early May breakdown of talks, the U.S. side is ready to engage.
Mnuchin said that the United States wants free, fair and balanced trade with China, in part to close a gaping U.S. trade deficit with China.
“If we can’t have that, the end result will be that my expectation is that many companies will move their production out of China to other locations,” due to tariffs, Mnuchin said.
Mnuchin also said that the Treasury was watching China’s currency markets closely for signs of intervention, saying that the markets may have become accustomed to central bank support for the yuan.
If that support is suddenly withdrawn, “the market could view that as a desire to have the currency weaken,” he said, declining to comment when asked whether he thought China was deliberately trying to weaken its currency. (Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Chris Gallagher & Elaine Hardcastle)