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* US farm chief sees incremental progress in agriculture
* Business community optimistic on progress in some areas
* US says talks keep stability amid leadership transition
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, Dec 19 (Reuters) - The United States expects only "incremental" progress on longstanding farm trade issues in high-level talks with China on Wednesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
"Hopefully we'll be able to get some progress, but it's incremental. It's slow but sure," Vilsack told reporters after a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The United States has been pressing China before Wednesday's U.S-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) meeting to ease restrictions on imports of U.S. meat and horticultural products that the United States believes are not based on sound science.
"There's also the issues of biotechnology and the regulatory process," Vilsack said, referring to delays in Chinese approvals of new genetically modified crop varieties. "Our hope is that by the time the meeting ends we have progress on some of those fronts."
The JCCT is an annual forum launched in 1983 for the two countries to address trade and investment concerns.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce official Jamie Waterman said agriculture was a key concern, on a U.S. laundry list that also includes market access barriers, intellectual property rights enforcement and government procurement preferences.
In agriculture, "the absence of product approvals for roughly a year is a serious concern and has the potential to create real challenges for China," he said.
The United States is also pressing Beijing to take stronger action to fight piracy and counterfeiting of U.S. goods and end policies that discriminate against foreign firms or require them to transfer technology to do business in China.
"We are cautiously optimistic that we will see progress in at least some of these areas," said Waterman.
China has its own list of concerns, which include U.S. restrictions on exports of high technology and its active use of anti-dumping and countervailing duties against imports of Chinese goods that Washington believes are unfairly priced.
The head of the Chinese delegation, Vice Premier Wang Qishan, said this week's JCCT convenes in Washington amid a complicated global economy with multiple factors pointing to continue slower growth.
"Preserving growth, employment and stability will be the chief duty of every country," said Wang. He urged the two powers to use the talks to address mutual concerns and "avoid the politicization of trade issues."
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank are leading the U.S. delegation.
Kirk said that with ongoing leadership transitions in Beijing and Washington it was important that working-level officials hold up "the JCCT as one of the pillars of stability in this relationship."
"The true success of this plenary will be judged by those who rely on the JCCT to deliver measurable results that help stabilize and enhance our trade and investment relationships," he said.
Vilsack, who is also attending the talks, noted that they come at a moment of "transition" for both governments.
President Barack Obama is expected to bring in a new economic team for his second term, which begins in January.
Meanwhile, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping took helm of the Chinese Communist Party in November and will take over as head of state at March at the annual parliament meeting.