The Cable

U.S. Trade Representative Slams China, WTO, in Rare Public Appearance

“We will have changes in trade policy,” Robert Lighthizer promised.

US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer(L) delivers remarks as US General Counsel Stephen Vaughn(R) looks on at the start of the negotiations for the modernization of NAFTA on August 16, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Negotiators from Canada, Mexico and the United States opened the first round of talks Wednesday to revamp the 23-year-old regional free trade agreement some see as a demon and others as a savior. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS        (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer(L) delivers remarks as US General Counsel Stephen Vaughn(R) looks on at the start of the negotiations for the modernization of NAFTA on August 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. Negotiators from Canada, Mexico and the United States opened the first round of talks Wednesday to revamp the 23-year-old regional free trade agreement some see as a demon and others as a savior. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

In a rare public appearance, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer doubled down on the Trump administration’s “America First” approach to trade policy, citing an erosion of popular support for free trade and China’s “mercantilist” approach to commerce.

“There has been a growing feeling that the system that has developed in recent years is not quite fair to American workers and manufacturing and that it needs to change,” he said in his remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“We will have changes in trade policy,” he said.

Lighthizer’s comments cast doubt on the notion that that protectionist voices in the administration are being outweighed by more conventional policymakers, such as Gary Cohn, a top White House economic adviser. Lighthizer reiterated administration plans to review existing trade deals, including revamping the North American Free Trade Agreement, and took particular aim at Beijing.

The trade rep, who grappled with the challenge of Japanese trade dominance during the Reagan administration, said Chinese practices were much more threatening than those used by Tokyo to gain market share and supercharge its export economy.

“The sheer scale of [Chinese] efforts to develop their economy and subsidize, to create national champions, to force tech transfers, and distort markets in China and throughout the world is a threat to the trading system that is unprecedented,” he said.

And the current rules aren’t enough to rein China in, he said. The World Trade Organization cannot “successfully manage mercantilism on this scale,” he said, criticizing in particular the WTO’s mechanism for resolving trade disputes.

But America’s perceived disadvantages don’t just come from China. Lighthizer said the administration is currently reviewing all of its bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements; the review should be complete in about a month, he said.

“It is reasonable to ask after a period of time whether what we received and what we paid were roughly equivalent,” he said.

Lighthizer reiterated that talks with Mexico and Canada to redraw NAFTA are proceeding at “warp speed,” which he said was important to minimize disruption to U.S. exporters, especially in the farm belt. He also expressed a desire to hold free-trade talks with the United Kingdom once its divorce from Europe is complete, but also said the administration is looking at the now-moribund Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an ambitious trade pact with the European Union.

At heart, Lighthizer sought to make the case that the administration is largely sticking to the script it outlined on the campaign trail — which lambasted the current global trade architecture as being unfair to the United States. He vowed to use every policy tool available to level the playing field.

“The real policy difference is not over whether we want efficient markets, but how do we get them,” he said. “I believe that we must be proactive, and we must use all the instruments we have.”

Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Before coming to FP, he worked for The Daily Star in Beirut covering defense, security, and Lebanese politics. His previous work and research includes time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.

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