Top China Critic Becomes Its Defender

WASHINGTON – Robert E. Lighthizer, the United States’ sales representative, has been one of Washington’s toughest critics for decades when it comes to China and its trade practices.

Since signing a trade deal with Beijing in January, he has become one of China’s greatest defenders within the government and has emerged as an obstacle to lawmakers and other high-ranking White House officials who punish China and start trade talks for its treatment of ethnic Muslims want with Taiwan.

In the past few months, Mr Lighthizer has pushed back several proposed policies that have roused Beijing, arguing that those efforts could disrupt the U.S.-China trade pact that he and President Trump have been trying to forge for more than two years said several former government officials and others familiar with the talks.

Mr Lighthizer has also curtailed his public criticism of China, instead promoting Beijing’s efforts to uphold the trade pact and live up to the end of the deal.

These views have brought Mr. Lighthizer into conflict with more Hawkish members of the Trump administration, including State Department officials who have advocated closer ties with Taiwan, as well as members of Congress.

On Thursday, 50 US senators from both parties sent a letter to Mr. Lighthizer asking him to begin the formal process of negotiating a trade pact with Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as part of its territory. Such a move would likely anger Beijing, which views certain partnerships with Taiwan as an affront to China’s sovereignty.

“We are confident that a US-Taiwan trade deal will promote security and economic growth for the US, Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific as a whole,” they write. “We urge the government to prioritize a comprehensive trade deal with Taiwan and look forward to working with you to secure that framework.”

Proponents say dealing directly with Taiwan could help counter China’s growing influence on technology and trade while strengthening a democratic ally. However, Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said concerns about the continuation of the trade deal with China could hurt prospects for trade negotiations, at least for the rest of that administration.

“The government, especially the USTR of course, is laser-focused on this trade deal with China,” she said. “The president doesn’t want it to fall apart.”

Mr. Lighthizer’s warmer stance on Beijing is due to growing tensions between the United States and China. Mr Trump said he was “not happy” with China for allowing coronavirus to spread beyond its borders and has increased penalties on Chinese tech companies like TikTok and WeChat as they pose a threat to national security.

Still, Mr Trump did not tear the trade deal up or threaten to take additional trade measures against Beijing. This is partly because the president is facing pressure from American banks, corporations and farmers not to let business relations with China deteriorate further, especially before the elections.

American farmers eagerly welcomed the signing of the trade agreement in January as the end of months of uncertainty in their markets. The deal included new access to the Chinese market for American banks and farmers, as well as the promise of record purchases of soybeans, pigs and natural gas.

However, these goals have been widely viewed as unrealistic and China is so far on track to buy only some of the goods it promised.

Despite the slow buying pace, Mr. Lighthizer defended the deal and told a House Committee in June that China was “showing all signs” that it would comply with the deal despite the coronavirus. Instead, he reserved his harshest criticism of the World Trade Organization, which he described as “chaos” in need of “radical reform,” and the European Union, which he threatened with tariffs if it did not agree to a trade deal on America’s terms.

Mr. Lighthizer’s tone shift is noteworthy as he has earned a reputation as a critic of China during a long career in Congress, the executive branch, and a trade attorney in Washington. His history of fighting China, including prosecuting trade cases against the country and refusing to join the World Trade Organization, was what first ingratiated him with Mr. Trump, who had a similarly dire view of China’s trade practices.

But Mr. Lighthizer recently stepped in to shoot down several policy measures that could have threatened China economically, including efforts by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to impose a comprehensive ban on cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang.

The move, which was to be announced on the morning of September 8, would have excluded many products from Xinjiang over concerns that they were being made using forced labor by Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held in camps in the region by China. But Mr Lighthizer, along with Steven Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary, Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture, and Mark Meadows, White House Chief of Staff, have objected to the measure because it could provoke China and threaten American cotton exports with the trade deal, the with said people familiar with the matter. China is one of the world’s largest cotton importers, purchasing nearly $ 1 billion worth of American cotton in 2018.

Earlier this summer, when the Trump administration was considering how to take revenge on China for cracking down on Hong Kong, Mr Lighthizer also rejected the idea of ​​Hong Kong imposing tariffs, similar to how China was imposing tariffs.

Some analysts have said that neither measure seemed particularly well thought out. Clete Willems, a former Trump administration trade official who is now a partner at Akin Gump, defended Mr. Lighthizer’s positions, saying that the administration “should take strong action against Hong Kong and Xinjiang, but only if those actions have the chance to change behavior and have no unintended consequences. “

“In Hong Kong, we just don’t import enough goods for the tariffs to change China’s behavior. With regard to Xinjiang, we need to fully understand the implications for global textile supply chains before we can proceed, ”Willems said.

However, Mr. Lighthizer’s reluctance to enter into trade talks with Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as part of its territory, has been more controversial. In particular, it has brought him against officials from the State, Defense, and Trade and National Security Council officials who are promoting closer ties with the island to counter China’s influence.

Things came to a head after David R. Stilwell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, delivered a speech in late August in a Washington think tank suggesting a new economic engagement with Taiwan. The State Department also planned to send its senior economic official, Keith Krach, to Taiwan in mid-September.

These proposals sparked disagreement between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mr. Lighthizer, who viewed trade talks with Taiwan as well within the domain of the USTR, said three people familiar with the matter. Another person said that the USTR and the State Department collided over Mr. Krach’s trip.

In an email reply, Mr. Lighthizer called the anecdote “a crazy made up story”.

“I have never spoken to Secretary Pompeo about it. And I’ve never had an angry conflict with the secretary about this or anything in my life, ”said Mr. Lighthizer.

The State Department declined to comment.

China believes its claim to Taiwan is non-negotiable and has stood up to companies and politicians who do not support this view, including trying to get Taiwan out of multilateral trade deals in order to economically isolate the island. Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, has sought to strengthen the island’s independence by cultivating closer ties with the United States.

In late August, Ms. Tsai eased previous import restrictions on US beef and pork to encourage the United States to enter into trade talks. Mr Pompeo welcomed the move in a tweet, saying it “opens the door to even deeper economic and trade cooperation”. USTR made no statement.

Taiwan has a population of less than 24 million, but was the 10th largest U.S. trading partner in 2019 and offered a large market for American agricultural products and arms sales.

American officials have also viewed Taiwan, a major electronics supplier, as a bulwark against China’s hegemony over certain advanced technologies. In May, the Trump administration announced that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, a leading computer chip maker, had pledged to build a factory in Arizona, although the project is still awaiting funding from Congress.

Not everyone thinks trade talks with Taiwan will be some success. James Green, a senior advisor at McLarty Associates and a former trade official, said the United States had been negotiating a trade and investment agreement with Taiwan for two decades with little result. He said Mr. Lighthizer may not be ready to begin such a long and difficult process immediately before an election when the government’s future is uncertain.

Mr Trump has also appeared cautious about closer ties with Taiwan. The president, who provoked China’s anger shortly after his 2016 election by accepting congratulations from Ms. Tsai, has long made it clear to advisors the importance he attaches to the Chinese trade deal. Mr Trump repeatedly stressed Taiwan’s lack of importance by likening the island to the tip of a sharpie and China to the determined desk in the Oval Office, wrote John Bolton, former National Security Advisor to Mr Trump, in his book.

But elsewhere in Washington support for closer ties with Taiwan is growing.

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar traveled to Taiwan in August, the highest US official in decades. On August 31st, Mr. Stilwell announced a new economic dialogue that “will explore the full spectrum of our economic relationships – semiconductors, healthcare, energy and beyond – with technology at its core.”

The hope was that efforts would get the USTR going and put pressure on it to move trade relations forward, said Ms. Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The State Department “did what it was responsible for,” she said. “But in the end, the state can’t negotiate trade deals, and that’s what Taiwan wants.”

In September, Mr. Krach visited the island to speak to Taiwan officials about technology investments and other economic relationships, and to dine with Ms. Tsai and retired TSMC founder Morris Chang. But Mr Krach did not bring up the subject of trade talks.

Edward Wong contributed to the coverage.