MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Here's the thing to know about this latest back-and-forth between the U.S. and China over tariffs. Both sides have drawn up lists of products that they say they would tax at the border, but it doesn't mean it's going to happen. One way to look at this, you have two parties which happen to be the largest two economies in the world. And they're circling each other, preparing for negotiations. The U.S. is demanding that China make fundamental changes to its economic system. It's not clear that China will be willing to do so.
Joining us now is Jeremie Waterman. He is president of the China Center and vice president for Greater China at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Hi, there.
JEREMIE WATERMAN: Hi, how are you?
WATERMAN: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: ...Thank you. We're glad to have you on. So here's where we stand. Yesterday, the Trump administration announced potential tariffs on Chinese products. And the focus was things like robotics and aerospace machinery. China shot back today and said, we're going to impose these tariffs if you do that. The tit for tat, for tit for tat, for tit for tat is raising questions about are we on the edge of a trade war. Jeremy, are we?
WATERMAN: The level of concern today is certainly much greater than it was a couple days ago. There's still time, though. There's still time.
And there's a need for these - for the two governments to get to the negotiating table and, quite frankly, for China to move on a reform agenda that is in its own interest in terms of opening its economy to greater competition, to end the kinds of trade and investment barriers at the border that can from time to time coerce companies into having to provide their intellectual property as a condition for operating in the market, and then also to deal with some of the behind-the-border regulations and policies that have the same effect.
KELLY: Let me dig into how this works because you're speaking to tensions in the U.S.-China relationship that are long and deep. I mean, when a U.S. company goes to China to try to do business there, invest there, Americans need to partner with Chinese companies. And because of that, it is hard for Americans to protect their intellectual property the way they would like, which has been an issue for more than 20 years. How likely in your view is it that these two countries can find a way to work this out?
WATERMAN: Well, I think it's certainly a challenge. There does need to be greater equity and fairness. And certainly that's the message of the administration, so we're with the administration on that point. But we need also an approach that is not counterproductive, that does not inflict harm on ourselves in terms of tariffs.
KELLY: Are the tariffs, as they've currently been laid out by the Trump administration, in your view running that risk of inflicting self-harm?
WATERMAN: The list was just issued yesterday. It's a lengthy list. It's 40 pages. And so we're going through it. But we already are getting reports that there are products - for example, in the medical device industry, there are products on that list that could have an adverse impact on American companies and consumers and potentially even our healthcare system.
KELLY: Give me a couple of examples from the list where you see room to negotiate.
WATERMAN: Well, I - look, I think the goal here is not to have tariffs on either side. If there are tariffs, it's going to be very difficult to avoid a - an action and counter-reaction, a tit-for-tat cycle. And that's something, obviously, as we look at financial markets, clearly financial markets aren't comfortable with that. And that's something obviously that's going to make it very hard for American companies to do business and also present risk to the global economy.
KELLY: How much does it complicate things to have a U.S. president who likes to attack China in tweets, during speeches? To what extent does that complicate the U.S. negotiating position?
WATERMAN: Well, look. This president is unique in terms of the tools and the way he communicates. But, you know, the president went to China last November and had a very good visit.
KELLY: But here he is pushing for 50 billion in tariffs on China. Does that complicate things for the - for your members?
WATERMAN: Right. But I think the question of communication versus the underlying policy push - and on this particular issue, the focus seems to be more on addressing the underlying policy concerns.
KELLY: You're saying you hope the tit-for-tat rhetoric does not (laughter) translate into tit-for-tat tariffs as these play out in the coming weeks.
WATERMAN: I think that's absolutely right.
KELLY: Jeremie Waterman, thank you.
WATERMAN: Thank you.
KELLY: Jeremie Waterman. He's president of the China Center and vice president for Greater China at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.