Trump's senior trade adviser Peter Navarro, aka Ron Vara, highlights case for more China tariffs

Ron Vara is the fictional character that senior trade adviser Peter Navarro created and cited as an expert more than a dozen times in five of his 13 books, where he offered searing critiques of China. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A critical decision about China tariffs is looming and Ron Vara, Mr Peter Navarro's hawkish alter ego, has re-emerged to share some thoughts on the matter.

United States President Donald Trump must decide within days whether to proceed with the next round of tariffs on US$160 billion (S$217 billion) of Chinese goods, which are slated to go into effect on Sunday (Dec 15).

Mr Navarro, a senior trade adviser to Mr Trump and a China sceptic, has cast doubt on the willingness of Beijing to meaningfully overhaul its trade practices, and has advocated the tariffs as a tool to force China to change its behaviour.

He is not the only one making that point. To illustrate those concerns, Mr Navarro harnessed his literary muse, Ron Vara, in a memo that is circulating in Washington.

Sent from an e-mail address purportedly belonging to Ron Vara, the memo highlights public commentary in favour of keeping the pressure on China with more tariffs.

"Much debate going on," Ron Vara wrote, referring to the decision about whether to roll back or double down on China tariffs. "Here's one side that has not been in focus. Thoughts?"

Ron Vara is the fictional character that Mr Navarro created and cited as an expert more than a dozen times in five of his 13 books, where he offered searing critiques of China. His use of the fabricated source emerged in October after an Australian scholar reviewed all of Mr Navarro's writing and discovered that one of his sources was imaginary.

Mr Navarro confirmed the authenticity of the memo. It is not clear how widely it was distributed.

"On a daily basis, I speak to, or correspond with, people that I respect, and don't necessarily agree with, to receive their thoughts on issues critical to American workers and the American people," he said. "This kind of active dialogue makes for the best possible decisions."

He added: "Such a free exchange of ideas is essential to the success of an administration that is simultaneously putting up the best economic numbers in a half century and achieving success after success on the trade front."

He described a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico that is on track to become law as "just the latest big win".

The memo does not show Mr Navarro formally endorsing any views, but it lives up to his reputation for seeking to force deep structural changes to China's economy through tariffs. It outlines the "keep tariffs argument", which accuses China of stepping up only US farm purchases of pork and soybeans because of its domestic swine fever outbreak. And he claims that recent changes to Chinese law run counter to promises made by the country's officials to protect US intellectual property.

The memo also asserts that Mr Trump's tariffs are protecting the US economy without having any negative effect on growth or the stock market.

And, in a twist on market certainty, it suggests that Mr Trump could calm jittery investors by publicly backing away from a deal: "Get uncertainty out of the market by announcing no deal until after the election and ride the tariffs to victory."

Trump administration officials have given mixed signals about the fate of the tariffs and the significance of Sunday's deadline.

Mr Navarro, who has pushed privately for the most ambitious deal possible, has made few public remarks about the China negotiations in recent weeks.

Amid the jockeying within the Trump administration, officials often try to arrange for television anchors or commentators to convey their views in hopes that Mr Trump will watch them and be persuaded.

Mr Navarro's memo goes on to cite a recent commentary from CNBC host Jim Cramer, who made the case that the strength of America's economy means that it can withstand any drag from a more protracted trade dispute with China.

It also includes an analysis from Mr Lawrence B. Lindsey who was director of the National Economic Council under president George W. Bush and makes the argument that another round of China tariffs would do minimal harm to the US.

However, Mr Lindsey's analysis predicts that both countries could be enticed to settle for a transactional agreement before Christmas that entails China purchasing more US farm products in exchange for some tariff relief.

That scenario, he writes, would be akin to a "Yuletide Regifting" - where "each side will be giving the other something it wants to get rid of anyway".

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