President Donald Trump’s top trade negotiator sent a clear signal to China – and Congress – on Wednesday that any deal brokered between the world’s two largest economies should be all or nothing.
“We are making real progress,” resolving the US-China trade dispute Robert Lighthizer, the US Trade Representative told House lawmakers at a hearing on Capitol Hill. “If we can complete this effort – and again I say ‘if’ – and can reach a satisfactory solution to the all-important issue of enforceability as well as some other concerns.”
Lighthizer said it’s still unclear whether the Chinese will meet US demands – but that the issues were “too serious” to simply accept Chinese promises to purchase more US agricultural products and call it a win.
“Don’t go for the soybean solution. This is our one chance,” said Lighthizer.
The comments from the lead US negotiator were a sharp contrast to Trump’s sunny remarks earlier this week, in which the two countries were close to reaching a deal.
The American President said he would participate in a “signing summit” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping sometime next month at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, potentially putting an end to a long-standing trade impasse that has rattled Wall Street, cramped the Chinese economy and taken a bite out of US farm and import businesses.
But Lighthizer, who acknowledged a signing ceremony would take place, made clear any deal with the Chinese would have to be “specific, measurable” and “enforceable at all levels of the government.”
He said any imminent deal would be one step forward in a much longer process to fundamentally change Chinese unfair trading practices, which include intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers.
“I’m not foolish enough to think there’s one negotiation that’s going to change all the practices with China or our relationship with them,” said Lighthizer. “I view this as a process.”
He also told House lawmakers any deal would be a binding agreement, regardless of whether or not it was called a ‘Memoranda of Understanding’ - a term the President made clear he intensely dislikes in televised comments from the Oval Office last week.
“Not quite sure where you’re going with this,” said Lighthizer in response to a question from Texas Democrat Rep. Lloyd Doggett. “This will be a binding agreement. Like flowers and children, they last while they last.”
Lighthizer made clear to lawmakers that the Trump administration had no intention of submitting the terms of the deal to Congress for approval. Instead, he said his focus is to resolve the administration’s concerns tied to the agency’s 301 report, which identifies trade barriers to US companies and products, and that the President has the constitutional authority to negotiate a trade deal with China.
“This is not a free trade agreement,” said Lighthizer. “My scope is narrow here, it is based on 301.”
The Trump administration had been planning to escalate tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10% to 25% this weekend if they were unable to broker a deal.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted plans to delay those increases citing “substantial progress” on top priority issues for the administration tied to intellectual property and forcing American companies to give up their technology for market access in China.
Lighthizer told lawmakers that the process is underway to update a government notice to halt the trigger of harsher tariffs, which was expected to take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday.
One of the key issues that is still being ironed out by negotiators is on currency. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters on Friday that the two sides had reached an agreement on the issue, calling it the “strongest ever” without offering any specifics.
When asked about the prospects of a currency deal, the trade envoy dispelled that saying, “There’s no agreement until there’s agreement on everything. But the reality is we have spent a lot of time on currency and it will be enforceable.”