Donald Trump

Trump’s top trade pick ‘set to strain economic ties with China’

Expected choice of conservative trade lawyer Robert Lighthizer as top negotiator casts further shadow over trade and investment ties

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 10:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 11:55pm

Donald Trump’s top pick as his US trade representative – a veteran supporter of “get tough on ­China” trade talks – will cast a ­further shadow over bilateral trade and investment ties, ­according to senior Chinese government advisers.

Robert Lighthizer, a trade lawyer who served as deputy US trade representative under president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, is tipped to head Trump’s top trade-negotiating agency.

Analysts said Lighthizer’s expected nomination was just another example of Trump packing his economic team with conservative veterans of US steel interests and vocal critics of China’s trade barriers such as export subsidies and market access restrictions.

Trump’s trade team, including his nominee for commerce secretary, billionaire investor ­Wilbur Ross, and Peter Navarro, director of the newly established National Trade Council, would inevitably make economic and trade ties between China and the US more difficult, according to former vice-commerce minister Wei Jianguo.

Wei, now a deputy director of the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges, said the nomination of Lighthizer, one of Trump’s top trade advisers and a supporter of the president-elect’s tough approach to trade with ­China since at least 2011, was not surprising.

“I am not optimistic about bilateral trade relations under Trump as we look set to see more disagreements and frictions on various import and export sectors, which is definitely not good news for China-US ties,” he said.

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“But considering the increasingly intertwined trade ties between Beijing and Washington in recent years, I don’t think we are going to see the possibility of a full-fledged trade war between the world’s top two economies.”

Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation and an adviser to the State Council, said that while Beijing should be prepared for trade disputes under Trump, it was too early to say if he would translate his aggressive anti-free trade campaign rhetoric into policy.

“Trump is a businessman and I think he is just talking tough to get better deals vis-à-vis China,” Wang said. Trade had been a central issue throughout Trump’s election campaign.

“He has to talk tough on trade to China partly because that’s how he got elected,” Wang said.

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Analysts also noted Trump and many of his trade advisers, such as Navarro and Dan DiMicco, former chief executive of North Carolina-based steelmaker Nucor, vigorously opposed the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership pact and promised to levy hefty tariffs on Chinese imports.

We should take Trump’s tough talk seriously but not literally.
Wei Jianguo, former vice-commerce minister

Trump criticised China on Twitter on Monday for “taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade” while refusing to rein in nuclear-armed North Korea.

“We should take Trump’s tough talk seriously but not literally. I’d rather think he intends to test Beijing’s bottom line instead of provoking China,” Wei said.

Under Trump, the US trade representative – who traditionally has had authority over trade negotiations – will not serve as the main architect of US trade policy, according to Reuters. Instead, the commerce secretary and Navarro’s new office are expected to play more important roles in setting the trade agenda.