When US President Donald Trump introduced within the Oval Workplace this month that it’d take till Could to seal a deal to finish the commerce conflict with China, Robert Lighthizer had each motive to exhale.
The 71-year outdated US commerce consultant — an Ohio native recognized for his coarse voice and protectionist worldview — had simply secured extra time to eke out further concessions from Beijing, prevailing over different Trump administration officers who’ve pushed for a sooner settlement.
“There are nonetheless some main, main points left, however we’re actually making extra progress than we’d’ve thought after we began,” Mr Lighthizer mentioned in entrance of the president. “I feel that’s a good assertion”.
Mr Lighthizer’s stature inside the Trump administration has been steadily rising because the US president launched a sequence of commerce disputes with strategic rivals resembling China and allies just like the EU final yr.
In December, Mr Trump put him answerable for main the talks with Beijing, after earlier efforts to succeed in a settlement pushed by Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, had failed.
The approaching weeks will decide whether or not Mr Trump’s wager on Mr Lighthizer has paid off. If the US commerce consultant pushes the Chinese language too far, the talks might collapse, which might deal a giant blow to Mr Trump’s prime political precedence and the guts of his commerce agenda. If Mr Lighthizer settles too simply, Mr Trump can count on home backlash for having struck a weak settlement, which might additionally create an issue for him heading into the 2020 re-election battle.
“I feel he’ll ship a deal, however the query is whether or not it’ll, to place it properly, move the ‘straight-face’ check,” mentioned one former senior commerce official. “Trump will say no matter they signal is the best factor ever, however the jury continues to be out on whether or not this shall be an actual, substantial deal that individuals take significantly.”
In at the very least two telephone conversations in latest days, Mr Lighthizer, flanked by Mr Mnuchin, was once more pushing Liu He, the highest Chinese language negotiator, to offer some extra floor. The 2 sides have been near a last deal for weeks, however have continued to haggle on the most important sticking factors within the talks, together with huge structural modifications to Chinese language financial coverage and regulation demanded by the US, in addition to a scheme to implement the settlement and the destiny of current tariffs.
This month, strain from Mr Lighthizer led to some extra concessions from China on digital commerce, notably on non-discriminatory therapy for US cloud computing firms, which had emerged as one other key level of rivalry within the talks.
[Mr Lighthizer] doesn’t need to exit wanting like a man who didn’t get his method. He’s going to take no matter it’s, make lemonade out of the lemons, and promote it the very best he probably can.
Individuals aware of the talks say that Mr Lighthizer has delegated a lot of the duty for negotiating large-scale purchases of US items by Chinese language consumers to US commerce division officers. This a part of the accord is being drafted to fulfill Mr Trump’s urge for food for a discount within the bilateral commerce deficit, however Mr Lighthizer sees it as much less central to the negotiations.
“Bob is concentrated on the issues which can be actually essential, and he has the advantage of leverage that the remainder of us would liked to have — he’s making an attempt to get elementary structural modifications enforced and completed,” mentioned one other former senior US commerce official. “The most important threat he faces within the China negotiations isn’t essentially from the opposite aspect of the desk however from his aspect of the desk, from being undermined at residence.”
Among the many risks for Mr Lighthizer at this stage is that he might discover himself at odds with Mr Trump if the unpredictable president doesn’t observe his suggestions or modifications his thoughts on the verge of an settlement with Mr Xi, pulling the rug out from underneath negotiators’ toes.
However folks near the talks say that Mr Trump has proven himself to be exceptionally cautious in coping with Mr Lighthizer, in comparison with the therapy he has reserved for others.
“Trump has given Bob a bit bit extra space as a result of he is aware of that if Bob walks, the deal is lifeless. It has no credibility,” mentioned one individual near the negotiations.
There are different potential pitfalls. Mr Lighthizer has been negotiating a big deal inside a dysfunctional administration, the place there was a giant divide on methods to method commerce with China and excessive turnover amongst key employees and cupboard officers. In the meantime, congressional strain has been mounting quickly, principally for Mr Lighthizer and the White Home to stay as robust as potential within the last stretch.
“I commend the Trump administration for getting into into these tough and essential negotiations with China, and I encourage the administration to remain sturdy and to pursue long-term significant structural modifications in that relationship,” Rob Portman, a former US commerce consultant and a Republican senator from Ohio, lately mentioned on the Senate flooring.
Mr Lighthizer’s status as a China commerce hawk was nicely established lengthy earlier than Mr Trump was elected president, from a decades-long profession as a lawyer for the US metal business at Skadden Arps. “He all the time mentioned ‘on a scale of 1 to 10, for me taking up China is a 30’,” mentioned one one that meets commonly with the US commerce consultant.
Mr Lighthizer was by no means Beijing’s first-choice negotiating companion. However over time officers in Beijing have grown to understand Mr Lighthizer as the one senior Trump administration official who might genuinely ship a deal.
“They don’t like Lighthizer however they like that he is aware of what he’s speaking about and respect him for that,” mentioned one one that lately met with senior Chinese language financial and monetary officers. “They recognise he has a greater grasp on the problems than anyone else within the [Trump] administration.”
Such is the depth of hypothesis about Mr Lighthizer’s views at this crucial juncture that rumours about him have been flourishing lately throughout Washington. Simply this week, after Mr Mnuchin introduced deal had “just about” been reached on enforcement with China, the refusal of Mr Lighthizer’s workplace to verify the breakthrough was seen as an indication of a cut up between the 2.
Earlier within the month, there was unconfirmed chatter that Mr Lighthizer had intervened to scupper a summit announcement deliberate by Mr Trump for the top of April. And in February, after a testy trade with Mr Trump with cameras rolling within the Oval Workplace, there was even speak that Mr Lighthizer was so fed up that he was getting ready to give up, out of exhaustion or frustration.
However individuals who know him nicely say that’s extremely unlikely, not least as a result of he nonetheless has to finish the remainder of his commerce agenda, resembling passing the revision of Nafta by way of Congress, launching commerce talks with Japan and making an attempt to defuse industrial tensions with Brussels.
“I’ve recognized him for 35 years. I feel he’s having an excessive amount of enjoyable to depart,” says Invoice Reinsch, a senior adviser on the Middle for Strategic and Worldwide Research. “He’s retired from his regulation agency — that is his final cease, or second to final cease, and he’s loyal to the president.”
A former senior US commerce official added that any sense of failure on China would weigh closely on Mr Lighthizer’s legacy, so he’s prone to shut a deal for Mr Trump and keep it up.
“He doesn’t need to exit wanting like a man who didn’t get his method. He’s going to take no matter it’s, make lemonade out of the lemons, and promote it the very best he probably can,” the official mentioned.
Further reporting by Lucy Hornby