By William Mauldin
WASHINGTON -- As senior officials from the U.S. and China gathered in the Oval Office in February, President Trump had a simple message for his top negotiator, Robert Lighthizer: Close the deal.
"Mr. Lighthizer has done a great job," Mr. Trump told the negotiating teams, as reporters looked on. "But it's only a great job, Bob, if you get it finished, right?"
Three months later, the U.S.-China trade deal remains far from finished. Talks broke down this month as Beijing resisted U.S. demands that China change its laws to cement the accord, which Beijing saw as an assault on its sovereignty.
The impasse, after indications that a deal was in sight, reflects the Trump administration's determination that any deal should focus on long-term changes in Chinese economic and business rules. To trade lawyers and others following the talks, Mr. Lighthizer's fingerprints are plainly visible.
Before his appointment in 2017 as U.S. trade representative, Mr. Lighthizer spent three decades as a trade lawyer, largely representing U.S. Steel Corp. and other clients as they petitioned the U.S. government for tariffs on overseas rivals.
According to lawyers who have worked alongside Mr. Lighthizer for years, for him the goal of negotiation isn't to find a compromise or middle ground, but to pursue aggressively the best deal possible for his client. "He brings the characteristics to the table that you would want, " said Clete Willems, a former Trump administration trade adviser who recently joined law firm Akin, Gump Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP. "His background suits him uniquely well to the situation" with China.
Not everyone is a fan of the no-holds-barred approach. Miriam Sapiro, former acting U.S. trade representative in the Obama administration, said trade negotiators need to recognize that each side must score wins to reach a successful deal.
"If you're negotiating an agreement -- a trade agreement or really any agreement -- an approach of 'my way or the highway' is not likely to work," said Ms. Sapiro, in comments aimed at U.S. trade negotiators in general. "An adversarial hat may work at certain moments, but it's not necessarily going to be the strategy that gets you across the finish line."
Like the president, Mr. Lighthizer, 71 years old, eschews complex deals with several countries at once and has sought concessions from China unilaterally, despite many lawmakers' calls for a multilateral approach that wouldn't expose U.S. firms to so much risk from trade fights. "The more people you bring into the negotiations, the harder it is," Mr. Lighthizer told a House committee in March.
Mr. Lighthizer, who declined a request for an interview, does most of his work behind the scenes. But on occasion he will seize a public platform to attack trading partners' positions at crucial moments in the negotiations.
In 2018 talks to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, he used a news conference to vent frustration against Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in Montreal, attacking a Canadian proposal for new auto rules.
Mr. Lighthizer later used some of the Canadian ideas in an auto deal he struck with Mexico. Ms. Freeland called Mr. Lighthizer a "true professional" last week after the two struck a deal to eliminate U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs and Canadian retaliation.
Similarly, Mr. Lighthizer used a rare briefing at his office this month to attack China's actions at the negotiating table, accusing Chinese officials working on the agreement of a "redrafting of it in ways that pulled back important commitments."
Mr. Lighthizer cut his teeth in the 1980s as a deputy U.S. trade representative in the Republican Reagan administration. Mr. Reagan backed free trade, but officials including Mr. Lighthizer used America's economic heft and influence at the latter stages of the Cold War to win concessions that limited U.S. imports from fast-growing emerging markets.
Japanese officials at the time called him "missile man" after he took a proposal from Tokyo, made it into a paper airplane, and threw it back at them.
Later, Mr. Lighthizer entered a long period as a trade lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, focusing on corporate calls for tariffs. He took a break in 1996 to serve as the treasurer and an adviser to the presidential campaign of former GOP Sen. Bob Dole.
Along the way, he staked out a major position on China, saying in 2010 testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that Washington should consider putting aside its low-tariff commitments under the World Trade Organization if China continued to violate market principles.
Thus Mr. Lighthizer was a near-perfect fit for the Trump administration, since Mr. Trump had promised to tear up old agreements and use the threat of tariffs to put together new deals that he said would restore U.S. sovereignty. Recent U.S. trade representatives had leaned more toward free-trade orthodoxy.
U.S. officials say one reason for Mr. Lighthizer's hard line is the belief that China has ignored previous trade obligations, so he wants to make any new deal as legally binding as possible.
"Our objectives are to foster reform in China," Mr. Lighthizer told Congress recently, saying the country's state capitalism and technology thefts were an "existential problem."
The insistence on changing Chinese law is sensitive for Beijing because it represents an imbalance in the agreement: U.S. law isn't expected to change, because the Trump administration isn't planning to submit any deal with China to Congress.
"You can't have American officials going all over China without reciprocity, and we would have to have a similar concession to China for it to make sense," said Jerome Cohen, an expert in Asian law at New York University's law school.
There are other issues beyond the legal question, including the Trump administration's desire to remove tariffs only gradually to ensure China complies with the terms of the deal.
Politics and geopolitics are also in play in both countries. Mr. Trump, who was elected in part by promising to be tough on China, could also be returning to a more hawkish approach as he prepares for the 2020 campaign.
"If Bob can't get a deal, there may not be a deal to be had," said Michael Wessel, a trade consultant and member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Write to William Mauldin at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 23, 2019 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)
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