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US-China trade war: All stories

Inside the US delegation for China trade war talks: Washington’s big guns will be absent

  • US side will not have Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and top trade adviser Peter Navarro
  • The relatively low-ranking delegation may indicate that this meeting is about laying groundwork for future high-level talks
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 4:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 12:05pm

The US delegation that will head to Beijing on Monday for the next round of trade war negotiations will lack some of the high-ranking officials who took part in previous high-stakes meetings, the United States Trade Representative's Office confirmed on Friday.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and US President Donald Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, will all be absent from the delegation, led by deputy US Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish.

It is the first time officials from both sides have met for such discussions since the US and China called a truce in their trade war last December.

US President Donald Trump said on Friday that talks between Washington and Beijing aimed at resolving a bitter trade dispute were going “very well.”

“We are doing very well in our negotiation with China,” Trump told reporters at the White House after a meeting with congressional leaders on the partial government shutdown.

A relatively low-ranking delegation signals that the visit is about laying groundwork for later, more high-level talks, rather than making substantive progress in negotiations, said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“I think the lower level of the US group also suggests that we are not likely to get much visibility on any progress next week,” Lardy said.

Officials would be reluctant to “characterise the degree of progress or lack thereof in any discussion since Trump is the ultimate decider”, he said.

Gary Horlick, a Washington-based lawyer who has served as international trade counsel to the US Senate Finance Committee, agreed that the current stage of negotiations does not yet require the most senior members of the Trump administration.

“This is the right level for this stage of the negotiation,” Horlick said. “You want people with this level of expertise. Gregg Doud is the chief US agricultural negotiator and he’s very well qualified. “Agriculture is a key piece of this, so he’s the right way to go.”

Travelling with the all-male delegation will be a number of unnamed senior officials from the White House, the trade representative’s office and the departments of agriculture, commerce, energy and treasury, the USTR said in a statement.

Here is a description of the delegates and the possible roles they will play in next week’s discussions.

Ambassador Jeffrey Gerrish, deputy US trade representative

A former lawyer with two decades of experience in international trade litigation and policy, Gerrish has served as the deputy US trade representative for Asia, Europe, the Middle East and industrial competitiveness since March 2018.

Gerrish is considered to be closely aligned with his boss, Lighthizer, adopting the same hardline approach to dealing with China that has set Lighthizer apart from more moderate administration officials such as Mnuchin.

Ambassador Gregg Doud, USTR chief agricultural negotiator

Since being approved to his role as the USTR’s chief agricultural negotiator by the Senate in March 2018, Gregg Doud has spoken out about China’s trade practices on a number of occasions, calling the country a “communist, command-controlled economy” and arguing that China’s “stockpiling” of the world’s grain supplies was “depressing prices for every other farmer across the globe”.

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Doud was raised on – and still owns part of – a family farm in Kansas whose produce includes soybeans, one of the US commodities to have been most affected by the trade war.

Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney, US Department of Agriculture

A potential moderate presence in the delegation, the USDA’s Ted McKinney vowed upon his appointment to devote himself to visiting foreign countries, “building trust, opening doors for farmers and processors, removing trade barriers and otherwise being what I hope to be known as: a high-trust and high-delivery person of our ag portfolio”.

In May 2018, on the tail of a failed attempt led by Mnuchin to strike a deal in Beijing, McKinney led a delegation of agribusiness representatives to southern China seeking to establish new trade connections.

Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Gilbert B. Kaplan, US Department of Commerce 

A former lawyer who represented US companies in cases of intellectual property infringement, Gilbert Kaplan could play a prominent role next week in discussions surrounding the alleged forced transfer to Chinese companies of the technology of foreign joint venture partners, a charge that is central to the Trump administration’s grievances about China’s trade barriers.

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Kaplan, who led the first successful anti-subsidy case against China in 2007 during his time as a lawyer, is also arguably the most qualified member of the US delegation to lead discussions with China on issues such as state subsidies and anti-dumping, the practice by which foreign manufacturers flood a country’s market with goods at less than fair value.

Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg, US Department of Energy 

An ardent supporter of so-called clean coal technology, Steven Winberg has advocated for continued, long-term energy cooperation – such as a technical information exchange – between the US and China, despite the immediate trade disputes.

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But Winberg’s membership in next week’s delegation may indicate that the Trump administration seeks to resist Chinese tariffs of 10 per cent on US liquefied natural gas (LNG), imposed in September 2018, which have stymied US attempts to become a global energy leader.

Under Secretary for International Affairs David Malpass, US Department of the Treasury

In the context of the US-China trade war, David Malpass is known for his role in hosting low-level talks in August last year that resulted in no tangible results.

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Conducted with China’s vice-minister of commerce, Wang Shouwen, the Washington-held talks were overshadowed by scepticism from both pundits and Trump himself that they would herald any meaningful progress.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney and Reuters