New US trade official an enigma

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 January, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 January, 1993, 12:00am

ONE week after president-elect Bill Clinton picked his old and trusted friend Mr Mickey Kantor to become the new US Trade Representative the business community is still wondering what to make of the appointment.

Is he a free trader who will fiercely fight to open markets around the world or will he threaten America's competitors with protectionism? No one seems to know.

For his part, Mr Kantor has kept silent about the trade agenda he will pursue.

Chinese trade officials in Washington, mindful of the already-troubled Sino-US trade relationship, are particularly anxious about what to expect.

Having been pressured into signing two fair-trade agreements this year alone under threat of painful US sanctions, Chinese diplomats are wondering if they should brace for an even more confrontational US behaviour under Mr Kantor.

Mr Kantor, a 53-year-old Los Angeles lawyer who was visibly emotional during a televised press conference when Mr Clinton named him as the new US trade chief, has a career history that points both to success and compassion.

As a young lawyer he defended the rights of poor migrant workers in Florida.

More recently, he was the chairman of Mr Clinton's presidential campaign.

He played key roles in the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

He was part of the special commission that investigated the Los Angeles riots following the police beating of black motorist Rodney King.

But Mr Kantor will assume the job of Trade Representative with an important feather missing from his cap.

He has no background in trade.

Washington trade experts are divided on whether this should be treated as a handicap or an asset.

Those not troubled by his lack of trade experience point out that Mrs Carla Hills, who now holds the job, also took over with limited experience but quickly became an effective guardian of US trade interests.

It is also noted that while Mr Kantor may not have trade experience he is a skilled negotiator - a valuable asset in the pushy arena of trade politics.

Mr Rich Brecher of the US-China Business Council, which promotes trade between the two countries, said he was ''encouraged'' by Mr Kantor's nomination.

''He's not coming in with a fixed agenda,'' Mr Brecher said.

Asked what he thought Mr Kantor's China trade policy would be, Mr Brecher echoed the words of many other experts.

''I have absolutely no idea. We're all wondering.'' Ms Elaine Budd, a Washington lobbyist involved in the congressional effort to attach human rights conditions to trade with China, said she was very much in the dark about Mr Kantor's position on the renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trade status.

''Clinton gave him the job as a political pay-back,'' she said, expressing a widely held view.

As a long-time friend of both the president-elect and Mrs Hillary Clinton, whom he met while the two served on the board of the Legal Services Corporation in the late 1970s, it was expected Mr Kantor would get a cabinet job as reward for running the election campaign.

After the Clinton victory Mr Kantor was tipped to become transition director but faced opposition from other top campaign aides and the job went to Mr Christopher Warren, who has since been nominated as the Secretary of State.

Mr Kantor nevertheless remains a close Clinton confidante and was in charge of organising the much-publicised economic conference which the president-elect chaired in Little Rock, Arkansas, last month.

Mr Kantor got the Trade Representative job after a fierce battle among other contenders led Mr Clinton to nominate a neutral candidate.

While Mr Kantor's agenda remains a mystery, most experts believe he will pursue a policy shaped largely by the new president, who has made clear he is unhappy with America's US$15 billion trade deficit with China.

''I really don't know what Mr Kantor will do,'' said a Chinese diplomat.

''It will all depend on Clinton's own trade policy towards China. I think decisions will be made at the White House'' and not at the Office of the Trade Representative.

In addition to grappling with the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement and the stalled world trade talks, Mr Kantor will also have to contend with touchy US trade relations with both China and Japan.

He will have to monitor Beijing's compliance with the two agreements under which China has promised to lift trade barriers and protect US copyrights.

A US trade official said that in dealing with all these sensitive issues Mr Kantor would have one very important tool.

''As a friend of Mr Clinton he will have access to and the ear of the new president.''