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Trump’s Trade Warrior Brings the Fight to Beijing

1 23 59
13.02.2019

Edward Alden is the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bob Lighthizer has spent his entire career preparing for the next two weeks of negotiations with China. The Trump administration’s 71-year-old U.S. trade representative was one of the earliest and most forceful opponents of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization. He derided as “wishful thinking” the idea then popular in both the Republican and Democratic parties that greater trade would lead to a more open, market-oriented and responsible China. Having lost that battle when the Clinton administration supported China’s WTO entry, he complained as trade between the United States and China grew more and more imbalanced, resulting in trade deficits he termed “catastrophic and unsustainable.”

Now, he finds himself in a position to do something about it. Lighthizer is leading the U.S. delegation to Beijing this week for what will be the most critical meeting yet in the high-stakes trade conflict between the United States and China. He is tasked with persuading or bullying Chinese leaders into what are euphemistically called “structural reforms,” policy changes that somehow force China off its path of using state power to capture new industries and supplant U.S. leadership in the critical technologies of the future.

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He is doing so against a March 1 deadline in which the United States has threatened to hit China with far more costly penalties on $200 billion in imports, raising tariffs from 10 to 25 percent. And he is doing so working for a weakened President Donald Trump, who appears badly to want a “big deal” that will gratify Wall Street investors and reinforce his personal friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Rarely has a U.S. cabinet official been asked to deliver so much in so little time against such long odds.

If he somehow succeeds, he could put the world’s two superpower economies on a path toward accommodation. If he fails, the United States faces either a drawn-out trade conflict with China, or an admission of defeat that there is little it can do to change Beijing’s economic strategy.

Lighthizer has been working toward this moment for decades. A lawyer and veteran of Washington trade circles going back to the 1970s – the National Journal once called him “the insider’s insider” – Lighthizer has nonetheless long been a Cassandra on China even as U.S. business and political elites were embracing China as a once-in-a-century opportunity. President Bill Clinton........

© Politico