A Lighthizer at the End of the Tunnel
Confirmed by the Senate on May 11, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer already faces a number of difficult trade challenges, including the renegotiation of NAFTA and beginning negotiations on a set of bilateral trade deals to replace the multilateral TPP.
Lighthizer was Deputy U.S. Trade Representative under Ronald Reagan and is widely known for somewhat heterodox views on trade. He opposed China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2000 and believes that Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China has hurt American manufacturers and workers.
On May 21, Lighthizer engaged in discussions with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and came to loggerheads over an attempted joint statement. He opposed the use of the word “protectionism” in the document and has put “free and fair” trade at the center of his message.
Some of this may concern free trade advocates in the U.S. and around the world, but closer examination of Lighthizer’s statements indicate that he is chiefly concerned with trade barriers that remain in place in other countries, such as China, and the bending of trade rules in those countries at the expense of the United States. A statement from Lighthizer on the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) website reads that, “APEC provides a great opportunity to focus energy on the barriers to its stated objective of free and open trade—a goal that cannot be met without tackling trade-distorting measures that have led to massive U.S. trade imbalances in the region. I look forward to working with our trade partners to expand U.S. export market access and address persistent unfair trade practices.”
In testimony in 2010, Lighthizer spoke at length about Chinese free market distortions. He said, “China has not even complied with its WTO obligations—much less adopted the “rule of law” as we know it. USTR’s most recent report regarding China’s WTO compliance identified a number of problems, including: (1) poor enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR) laws and regulations, (2) the use of export restrictions in violation of WTO commitments, (3) the use of investment rules to protect Chinese industries and (4) pressure from the Chinese government on non-Chinese companies to license their technology or intellectual property on unfavorable terms.”
Lighthizer’s primary target looks to be rule-breaking in trade, and Chinese theft of intellectual property fits that bill. As the still-young administration of Donald Trump puts the renegotiation of trade deals and new bilateral deals at the forefront of its agenda, having a seasoned hand like Lighthizer could help protect intellectual property (IP) rights, and strike a balance between “fair trade” campaign rhetoric and the free trade that benefits American businesses.