China has been fighting a trade war waged by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump with national pride at stake, but it is unclear to what degree the socialist country is serious about changing its economic and market structure.
On Monday the country kicked off in the commercial hub of Shanghai its inaugural trade fair dedicated to imports under the prodding of President Xi Jinping, aiming to show Beijing's commitment to promoting free trade in contrast to Washington's focus on invigorating domestic industries.
But despite its steadfast rejection of Trump's accusations, China has shown little signs of carrying out fundamental reforms to stem its alleged unfair business practices such as stealing intellectual property and technology from other nations as well as giving opaque benefits to state-owned firms.
Unless China makes efforts to resolve these issues, Trump is expected to continue putting pressure on Beijing, leading to a further escalation of the dispute between the governments of the world's two biggest economies, political experts say.
Japan, meanwhile, has been trying to bolster economic cooperation with its massive neighbor as the outlook for the world's third-largest economy remains gloomy, with the domestic market continuing to shrink against the backdrop of an aging population.
Protectionism will "result in trade stagnation" and "hurt the global economy," Xi said in a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the China International Import Expo, pledging that Beijing will "voluntarily open its markets to the world."
While expressing readiness to accelerate free trade talks and deepen cooperation in state-of-the-art technology with other countries, Xi also vowed to implement measures to protect intellectual property rights.
Xi appears to believe that if China increases imports and reduces its huge trade surplus with the United States, Trump would "stop bullying" the country, a diplomat from an Asian nation in Beijing said.
What Trump really wants to do, however, is make Chinese markets "completely free and open" to U.S. products without anxiety about technology theft, the source said. "He may keep attacking China until it takes concrete steps" to restructure its business system.
At their first summit in Florida in April 2017, Xi and Trump agreed to craft a "100-day plan" in a bid to boost U.S. exports to China and address Washington's massive trade deficit with Beijing. In May that year, Xi announced that China would hold the import expo.
When Trump visited Beijing in November last year, the two leaders also witnessed the inking of about $250 billion in business deals between U.S. and Chinese companies in areas such as energy, aviation and manufacturing.
Despite China's attempt to placate Trump, the United States has imposed higher tariffs on imports from China since earlier this year.
In September, Washington invoked tariffs on an additional $200 billion in Chinese imports. With this third round of tariffs, the United States is now taxing around half of the products it imports from China each year.
Beijing took retaliatory action, slapping additional tariffs on $60 billion in U.S. imports, which means China has so far levied tariffs on more than 80 percent of all goods from the United States, together with the previous ones.
The U.S. tariffs were in response to China's alleged intellectual property and technology theft.
"What China should do is to pursue not the quantity of trade but its quality," the diplomat said, adding that whether Xi will promise Trump that China will provide "high-quality" market access for the United States is key to resolving the ongoing trade war.
U.S. and Chinese officials have indicated that the two countries have been arranging a meeting between Trump and Xi on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Argentina later this year.
As Beijing's tensions with Washington have been intensifying, Tokyo has been watching for an opportunity to expand Japanese business opportunities in China. At the six-day expo in Shanghai, Japan has the largest presence, with nearly 430 firms and economic entities of the nation participating.
Sino-Japanese relations have been markedly improving since late last year, while some sensitive political issues including their territorial row in the East China Sea have effectively been shelved.
During Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's three-day visit to China in late October, Tokyo and Beijing agreed to proceed with new economic cooperation by changing the dynamics of bilateral ties "from competition to collaboration."
Chinese local governments have sent a large number of buyers to Shanghai. Xi's leadership has asked them to actively make contracts with Japanese enterprises, sources close to the matter said.
Panasonic Corp. is displaying its refrigerators and beauty appliances at the expo. "Sales of high-end refrigerators are robust," a staff member of the Japanese electronics giant said.
Smaller Japanese companies are also exhibiting their products. ARTPLAN Corp., a manufacturer in Shiga Prefecture with 12 employees, has introduced an assistance robot for people in need of nursing care.
With the Chinese population rapidly aging, "We hope we can extend our business," the firm said.
Around 3,600 companies from more than 170 nations, regions and international groups are taking part in the country's first national-level expo for imports, the Chinese government said. Among them are some 180 U.S. firms such as Google LLC and Microsoft Corp.