US lawmaker Darrell Issa nominated for trade post soon after calling out China at economic forum

Issa, a Republican who is not running for re-election, would lead the US Trade and Development Agency if confirmed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2018, 9:33pm

The US lawmaker who has been nominated to lead a United States trade agency harshly criticised China at a major economic forum, another sign of the heightening tensions between the world’s largest economies.

The rhetoric by Darrell Issa, a California Republican representative who is not running for re-election in November, was considered unexpected even though he has a history of being a tough China critic.

He made the remarks on Wednesday during a hastily arranged press conference at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, northeastern China, soon after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged to ensure equal treatment for foreign companies, a move seen by some US business representatives as undiplomatic at a time when China and the US are fighting a trade war.

At the news conference, Issa and a fellow US representative, Todd Rokita, voiced strong support for the Trump administration’s trade confrontation with China and called on Beijing to stop “stealing and cheating”.

Soon after they expressed the criticism, the White House said Issa was being named to head the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), a post that requires Senate confirmation.

One of the agency’s tasks is to help companies create jobs through exporting US goods and services.

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A US business representative said Issa’s remarks at the economic forum reflected those of some of the US Congress’s more hawkish members at the time when there have been discussion in Washington about decoupling two economies.

After making the remarks, Issa went to Beijing and took part in a lunch with several US business leaders and representatives on Thursday, three American business representatives said on condition of anonymity.

Another person familiar with the situation said Issa was “undiplomatically” harsh in comments about China, and acted with “questionable protocol” by holding an ad hoc press conference after Li’s speech.

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“If he is to lead the USTDA, he needs to be strong supporter and proponent of American business, and that requires him to act with poise and discretion in dealing with China’s leadership,” the source said.

Issa and Rokita, a Republican from Indiana, had hastily arranged a press conference after Li’s speech, demanding that Beijing stop “stealing and cheating” in trade practices.

“The American people are enjoying a robust economy. If we are going to ask for a proper fairness [on trade], if not now then when. There is no question that it’s the right time to have that discussion,” Issa said in response to questions about the trade war.

He said that the tariffs would have impact on items during the holiday shopping season, “but the reality is that it is the right time because for more than two decades we’ve watched our own industrial base erode because of the fact of unfair trade practices by a number of countries”.

He also said the success of negotiations with Mexico to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement was “a good example” for how China could address the trade dispute and reach a “free and fair” trade deal with the US, and played down the role of the World Trade Organisation.

But one US business representative tried to play down concerns about the possible influence of Issa’s hawkish views as the potential new head of the USTDA, saying the agency’s mandate was to promote US exports and help American businesses in China.

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Issa’s nomination came during a week when the trade war escalated even further, as US President Donald Trump announced punitive tariffs on half of Chinese imports to the US and threatened to impose duties on all Chinese products. Beijing struck back with tariffs on US$60 billion of American goods.

Observers have said China is capable of expanding the trade war into an economic battle, including a boycott of US products, similar to what it did during political tensions with South Korea and Japan.

Beijing could also possibly exclude US companies from taking part in projects linked to the “Belt and Road Initiative”, the observers said.