Two weeks before talks between the United States and China broke down, Beijing quietly called one of its most formidable trade negotiators out of a pre-retirement posting.
The negotiator, Yu Jianhua, a 28-year veteran of trade talks with American officials and at the World Trade Organization, returned to Beijing in mid-April from his position as China’s ambassador to the United Nations’ offices in Geneva. With his appointment, the Chinese government began to address an experience gap that could be holding it back as it tries to resolve a potentially devastating trade war with the Trump administration.
It is unclear how or whether a previous lack of trade-policy experience on China’s negotiating team contributed to the breakdown in negotiations last month. American officials walked away from the talks after their Chinese counterparts deleted page after page of provisions from a draft pact. The approval for such an assertive move almost certainly would have come directly from President Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader.
Still, people on both sides of the talks say that the Chinese government’s negotiating team has lacked specialized expertise in major trade issues. The appointment of Mr. Yu signals the apparent recognition by China’s leaders of a need for experience they can trust.
“He is one of the most savvy Chinese trade officials that the U.S. has dealt with,” said James Green, who was the top trade official at the United States Embassy in Beijing until August. “Recalling him from Geneva after only a year shows the lack of senior trade people in Beijing with whom the leadership feels comfortable.”
Settling the trade war is an arduous task but a high priority for China. Its economic growth is slowing, raising pressure on leaders to persuade the Trump administration to lower tariffs and help China’s factories recover. Beijing’s leaders also fear appearing weak to a Chinese public that has long been told the Communist Party had delivered them from decades of concessions to foreign powers.
On Tuesday, President Trump said that China “wants to make a deal very badly” but that he would accept a deal only if China agreed to the previous trade terms.
“It’s me right now that’s holding up the deal,” he said in remarks at the White House. “We had a deal with China, and unless they go back to that deal, I have no interest.”
The experience imbalance between the American and Chinese negotiating teams so far has been one of many obstacles to reaching a deal. The Chinese side has been heavy on financial policy experts and economists, while the United States team has been dominated by trade lawyers. The United States trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, has been working on trade issues inside and outside government since the 1970s.
Mr. Xi asked Liu He, China’s vice premier, to oversee the country’s side of the trade talks in February 2018. Mr. Liu, who leads the Communist Party’s powerful economic and financial affairs commission, had just assembled a team of young, Western-educated, English-speaking banking experts and economists, with the goal of bringing China’s spiraling debt problem under control.
The team, working from offices in a gray marble office building just 50 yards from the Chinese leadership’s Beijing compound, quickly pivoted. Instead of spending most of its time on trying to rein in China’s shadow banking sector and other financial speculation, its members began poring over past trade agreements related to intellectual property, cybersecurity and other issues.
The rise of Mr. Liu’s team had partly marginalized China’s Commerce Ministry until the past few weeks, people with detailed knowledge of Chinese policymaking said. They all insisted on anonymity because of political sensitivities about how the Chinese government operates.
The ministry, which has traditionally led the government’s trade relations, has a large bureaucracy for researching and negotiating such issues. It has become more visible in the dispute with the United States in the past few weeks, although Mr. Yu himself has not made any public comments on the negotiations.
Zhong Shan, the commerce minister, holds the title of China’s chief international trade negotiator, but he has less experience in international trade talks than Mr. Yu. Mr. Zhong is a former leader of two state-owned garment companies in Zhejiang, the province that is Mr. Xi’s political base, and his career has tracked Mr. Xi’s through a series of appointments there and, more recently, in Beijing.
Wang Shouwen, a linguist who rose through the ministry’s translation service, remains the vice minister of commerce for North American affairs after Mr. Yu’s return from Geneva. Mr. Wang has become somewhat more visible in the trade talks in the past few weeks, with the Commerce Ministry appearing to play a larger role.
But Mr. Yu, as first vice minister of commerce, outranks Mr. Wang and now has broader responsibilities within the ministry, although Mr. Wang continues to be the ministry’s main representative on the Chinese negotiating team responsible for face-to-face discussions with American officials.
Mr. Yu and the ministry did not respond to requests for comment. His return from Geneva was mentioned only briefly in a summary of personnel moves by the state-run Xinhua news agency two months ago.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Yu was vice minister of commerce for American affairs and China’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization, the global club of trading countries. He had spent only 15 months in Geneva representing Beijing at various United Nations agencies, outspokenly defending its human rights record and its internment of large numbers of predominantly Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region in northwest China, particularly an ethnic group known as Uighurs.
His new portfolio includes the ministry’s international trade secretariat, its European affairs division, and its discipline and internal investigations units, according to the ministry’s recently updated website. He does not appear to have been publicly involved in talks with the United States, but experts said he would probably have broad influence.
“His reputation is good — he’s very familiar with the international” issues, said Wang Huiyao, the president of the Center for China and Globalization, an influential research group in Beijing. “There are a lot of collective decisions on which I’m sure he can make a good contribution.”
Mr. Green, now a senior adviser at the Washington advisory firm McLarty Associates, said that although Mr. Yu was a tough negotiator, he had also shown more flexibility and imagination than other Chinese officials over the years in trying to find creative solutions that could benefit both sides in trade talks.
Vice ministers typically step down around the age of 60, and start looking for plum jobs in their late 50s. Mr. Yu, who turns 58 this year, had agreed in 2017 to take the ambassadorship to United Nations organizations.
Trade talks were barely moving then because Congress had been slow to confirm Mr. Lighthizer and other American trade officials. The delay frustrated Mr. Yu because his post then put him in charge of dealing with the United States trade representative’s office, said Mr. Green, the former American trade official.
“He was having a terrible time in Beijing. There was nobody to talk to in Washington, and he loved Geneva,” said Mr. Green, who knows Mr. Yu.
“Bringing him back is a clear signal they want him helping with the U.S.,” he added. “They wouldn’t bring him back just to deal with Europe.”