The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

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)
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.

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

  Twitter: @Rhys_Dubin

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.