Ties will progress no matter who wins U.S. election: China's Li

BEIJING (Reuters) - China-U.S. relations will continue to develop regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential election in November, China’s Premier Li Keqiang said on Wednesday, after criticism of Beijing by U.S. candidates.

The Chinese government has largely refrained from commenting on the U.S. election campaign, saying it is an internal matter for the American people, despite attacks on China by real estate mogul and Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Trump has frequently accused China of stealing jobs and portrayed himself as a tough negotiator who would beat Beijing at its own game.

U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has also weighed in with criticisms of China, saying earlier this month that as the Chinese economy slows, China will engage in more damaging practices in global trade.

Li, speaking at a news conference at the end of China’s annual meeting of parliament, said the U.S. election “has been lively and caught the eye of many”.

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“I believe that no matter in the end who wins the laurel and serves as president, the underlying trend of China-U.S. relations will not change,” Li said.

That trend over the past several decades has been “forward development”, he said.

Asked about President Barack Obama’s “pivot” back to Asia, which Chinese policymakers tend to view with suspicion, Li said he remained hopeful for future cooperation.

“As for countries outside the region, such as the United States, it can be said they’ve never left the Asia Pacific. We can cooperate with them in the Asia Pacific region, and manage our differences well.”

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While the world’s two largest economies are frequently at odds over everything from human rights and currency policy to the South China Sea, they have deep business ties and are in talks on a bilateral investment treaty (BIT).

Slow progress on the treaty, however, and tensions over cyber hacking and new laws in China that could hamper foreign tech firms, have soured commercial relations.

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China has more restrictions on foreign investment than the United States, and U.S. investors hope that the treaty will give them increased access to China’s many state-dominated industries, from financial services to telecommunications.

Li said he hoped the two countries could conduct the treaty talks on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.

“China will give U.S. investors wider market access in a gradual way, but this should be mutual. Bilateral opening should be reciprocal,” Li said.

Chinese officials have repeatedly pledged to lower market access barriers, but U.S. business lobbies say a negative list of prohibited and restricted industries for foreign investors is still too broad and must be whittled down.

Uncertainty about the direction of China’s reform policies was “softening confidence”, John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, told Reuters.

“If we could move to reciprocal treatment that would match the U.S. list, that would be great,” he added.

Reporting by Jason Subler and Kevin Yao; Additional reporting by Jessica Macy Yu; Writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Richard Pullin and Clarence Fernandez