China pledges to expand market access at annual trade fair amid foreign criticism

By Brenda Goh

SHANGHAI, China (Reuters) -China will further expand market access and increase imports, its premier told a trade fair in Shanghai on Sunday, amid criticism from European firms who said they wanted to see more tangible improvement in the country’s business environment.

Li Qiang told the opening ceremony of the annual China International Import Expo that the country was committed to opening up its economy, and that imports of goods and services were set to reach a cumulative $17 trillion within the next five years.

“No matter how the world changes, China’s pace of opening up will never stall, and its determination to share development opportunities with the world will never change,” Li said.

China will promote coordinated development of trade in goods and services, protect an international business environment, and relax market access including lifting restrictions on foreign investment in manufacturing, he said.

The import expo was launched by President Xi Jinping in 2018 to promote China’s free trade credentials and counter criticism of its trade surplus with many countries. However, participation in the past three years was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year’s event drew criticism from the European Chamber of Commerce in China on Friday, which branded it a “political showcase” and urged authorities to enact more tangible measures to restore confidence in the country among European businesses.

China’s imports have slumped this year amid a slowdown in the world’s second largest economy, although data released last month indicated that the downtrend could be starting to ease.

Li in his speech cited examples of businesses that had benefited from the show – including an Afghan carpet maker and Japanese pharmaceutical firm, though without identifying them – and said out of the roughly 3,400 companies participating this year, over 200 had been repeat attendees for the past six years.

Countries including Australia and the United States have sent large delegations to the event, which runs over Nov. 5-10. Participants include Micron Technology, Nestle, Burberry and L’Oreal, state media reported.

On Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, at the start of the first visit to China by a leader of his country in seven years, told the opening ceremony that dialogue and cooperation was “in all our interests”.

Last year, $73.52 billion worth of so-called intentional deals were signed at the fair, up 3.9% from the previous year.

China will “actively promote” its application to join the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Li also said in his speech on Sunday.

Taiwan, Ukraine, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador have also applied to join.

The CPTPP is a landmark trade pact agreed in 2018 between 11 countries including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Britain earlier this year became the 12th member of the pact, which cuts trade barriers. China’s application is next in line to be considered by the 12 members if they are dealt with in the order they were received.

(Reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing; Editing by Michael Perry and Christopher Cushing)