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Lighthizer is President Trump’s China “trade-war general”

“President Trump has chosen a very wise course of action regarding China,” said a confident Robert Lighthizer at an interview with the Asahi Shimbun on Aug. 25. “In fact, the United States should have acted earlier. Imposing tariffs on Chinese products has enabled us to have a constructive dialogue with China.” Mr. Lighthizer is the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).


The trade dispute with China, which involves sanctions and tariffs, is a signature policy of the Trump administration. Lighthizer, whom the Washington Post has called a “trade-war general,” has led the U.S. team in the trade negotiations with China.  


During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump stressed the need for a hardline policy on China and on the damage caused by globalization. The rhetoric had broad appeal among the working class. After assuming office, the new president kept his campaign promises and withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and started renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. As for the China strategy, however, President Trump’s approach toward China has not always been consistent.


“President Xi of China and I are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost.” This presidential tweet issued in May 2018 surprised the world. The president went on to mention a big trade deal and his personal relationship with Xi.


Congress had warned that the Chinese telecom giant could pose a threat to U.S. national security. The Department of Commerce had designated China for sanctions for allegedly violating U.S law. Nonetheless, President Trump chose to ease the sanctions as he mentioned in the tweet he released after meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.


President Trump thinks of himself as a “tough negotiator,” who can capably deal with other state leaders. He has often boasted of the personal ties he has forged with Xi. He sometimes made concessions to Xi if the Chinese leader hinted at increasing China’s agricultural imports from the U.S.


Lighthizer, however, never wavered during the four “tariff battles” with China. In January 2020, the U.S. and China reached a phase one agreement in their bilateral trade talks under his leadership. In the case of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) negotiations, Lighthizer successfully consolidated Republican as well as Democratic support from a divided Congress to implement the new pact. President Trump touts these trade agreements as the biggest achievements of his first term in the office.


Lighthizer led Japan-U.S. trade negotiations as a deputy USTR in the 1980s. He lost influence after that as the U.S. leaned toward free trade, regardless of party affiliation. Lighthizer issued a strong warning against China’s rapid growth through state-led trade and industry strategies and voiced opposition to China’s participation in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to no avail. His older brother, Jim Lighthizer, said: “He was a voice in the wilderness [among the free traders].”


Lighthizer’s skepticism of free trade stems partly from his childhood in a town in Ohio that was heavily dependent on the steel industry. The parents of most of his friends worked in nearby factories. Lighthizer often tells others that “50% of working Americans don’t have a college degree.” From early on, he supported President Trump, who was similarly critical of free trade and was welcomed by the President into the administration.


When Lighthizer finally came back to center stage, he was almost 70 years old. He had become shrewd in “discerning who is the king and not stepping into the spotlight himself,” according to his brother. While the President removed senior members of the administration one after another, Lighthizer stayed on by playing an exclusively behind-the-scenes role and staying away from the media. Jim says, “Sometimes you lose a war even if you win individual battles. My brother’s goal is to win the war.” Lighthizer’s aim is to prevail in the U.S.-China race for global hegemony in the medium to long term.


There are difficulties, however. The kind of trade negotiations Lighthizer has engaged in with China are only possible if the two countries are in dialogue with each other, but the bilateral relationship has been steadily deteriorating since the COVID-19 outbreak. President Trump is now using harsh language to criticize China. At a speech he gave on Aug. 6, the President stressed that Americans should unite to fight the virus that China has imposed on them. The competition between the two countries is turning into a quagmire that will be hard to extricate from.

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