Trump picks China critic for trade representative

Lawyer served in the Reagan administration and had major role in developing trade policy

WASHINGTON • Mr Donald Trump has picked lawyer Robert Lighthizer to head the US Trade Representative office, a further sign that the incoming administration will take a tougher line on China.

The President-elect's transition team confirmed the appointment yesterday.

Mr Lighthizer was deputy trade representative under president Ronald Reagan, playing a major role in developing trade policy and negotiating two dozen bilateral agreements on products from steel to grain. He will replace Mr Michael Froman, who led talks for the Obama administration on a Pacific trade deal that would have covered nearly 40 per cent of the global economy and was seen as a counterpoint to China's rising clout.

Mr Trump, however, argues that deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership kill US jobs. He has vowed to make smarter deals and slap punitive tariffs on countries that violate trade rules, particularly China.

Mr Lighthizer has previously accused China of unfair trade practices, in line with the views of China critic Peter Navarro, named by Mr Trump last month to head a newly formed White House National Trade Council.

In a 2011 article in The Washington Times, Mr Lighthizer said using tariffs to promote American industry was a Republican tenet harking back to pro-business politicians who established the party.


Mr Lighthizer has written that using tariffs to promote US industry was a Republican tenet harking back to pro-business politicians who established the party.

"The icon of modern conservatism, Ronald Reagan, imposed quotas on imported steel, protected Harley-Davidson from Japanese competition, restrained import of semiconductors and automobiles, and took myriad similar steps to keep American industry strong," Mr Lighthizer wrote. "How does allowing China to constantly rig trade in its favour advance the core conservative goal of making markets more efficient? Markets do not run better when manufacturing shifts to China largely because of the actions of its government."

The choice of Mr Lighthizer would make sense because Mr Trump's economic plan is "Reagan- esque", said Mr He Weiwen, deputy director of the Beijing-based Centre for China and Globalisation and a former business attache at Chinese consulates in the US.

"If Lighthizer is picked, a hardline approach towards China can be expected," he added.

Mr Trump has also linked geopolitical matters to the United States' trade ties, suggesting his administration will consider the behaviour of countries on defence and security in the framework of its economic relationships.

In a tweet on Monday, Mr Trump said: "China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice!" He was referring to North Korea saying it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US.

Mr Lighthizer has previously accused China of unfair trade practices, in line with the views of China critic Peter Navarro, named by Mr Trump last month to head a newly formed White House National Trade Council.

Yesterday, he blasted US carmaker General Motors (GM) and threatened to impose a "big border tax" on it for making some of its Chevrolet Cruze cars in Mexico. "General Motors is sending Mexican made model of Chevy Cruze to US car dealers tax free across border. Make in U.S.A. or pay big border tax!"

GM said it planned to lay off 2,000 employees early this year at two US plants, including one in Ohio, where it builds the compact Chevrolet Cruze. GM had planned to build the Cruze hatchback in Mexico while continuing to build the Cruze sedan in Ohio, supplier sources have said.

The office of the US Trade Representative is part of the Executive Office of the President, responsible for developing international trade and investment policy, overseeing trade negotiations and representing American interests at the World Trade Organisation.

In the run-up to his Jan 20 inauguration, Mr Trump will be making a flurry of final nominations for his Cabinet as well as filling out senior positions in his White House.

He has recruited Mr Marc Short, who is a top adviser to Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, to the West Wing, likely as head of legislative affairs, said two sources.

Mr Short is a veteran operative with deep ties on Capitol Hill and is respected by Republican leaders in both chambers.

He was Mr Pence's chief of staff during his time in Congress and later worked as president of Freedom Partners, the powerful political network of billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2017, with the headline 'Trump picks China critic for trade representative'. Print Edition | Subscribe