Trade war update: Lighthizer testifies, ‘much still needs to be done’

Foreign Affairs

Since a January 31 tweet from Donald Trump that emphasized, “No final deal will be made until my friend President Xi, and I, meet in the near future,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s influence in negotiations with China has been diminished.

That tweet alone dramatically changed expectations for negotiations: Lighthizer was effectively no longer chief negotiator, as he had been for the previous two months, and the 90-day deadline of March 1 was now practically worthless, as only a Trump-Xi meeting could signal the true end of negotiations.

More recently, Trump has argued with Lighthizer — on camera — in front of China’s top negotiator, Liú Hè 刘鹤, about the meaning of “Memorandum of Understanding.” Trump has also begun calling his prospective meeting with General Secretary Xi at Mar-a-Lago next month a “signing summit,” raising expectations that he will sign whatever comes to him.

The New York Times reports (porous paywall) that Lighthizer is feeling the squeeze:

Mr. Lighthizer has publicly expressed solidarity with the president’s goals, and those who know him say he remains loyal to Mr. Trump. In private, however, he has been frustrated by the president’s superficial understanding of the trading relationship with China and his tendency to jump unpredictably into the fray, friends and contacts say.

Lighthizer testified in Congress today. Here’s a few highlights:

  • “I’m not foolish enough to think that there’s going to be one negotiation” that’s going to completely change China’s ways or the U.S.-China relationship, he emphasized.
  • “Much still needs to be done both before an agreement is reached and, more importantly, after it is reached, if one is reached,” he said.
  • But an enforcement mechanism for whatever goals are set has already been agreed upon, he said, and it would consist of “monthly meetings at the office director level, quarterly meetings at the vice-ministerial level and semi-annual gatherings at the ministerial level, with these last meetings convened by Lighthizer and Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He,” the SCMP summarizes.