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India-US trade deal will be latest win for Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s go-to negotiator

Lighthizer, who served as Deputy USTR under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, is expected to finalise a trade deal between the US and India.

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New Delhi: The United States Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer, who is likely to arrive in India for his maiden visit on 10 February, is known for emerging victorious from tough negotiations. That’s why he is not expected to have much trouble in hammering out a favourable trade deal with New Delhi.

Ever since President Donald Trump picked Lighthizer as his go-to man for trade three years ago, the US has claimed victory in some of its most difficult ‘trade wars’, be it with China, or with Canada and Mexico.

Lighthizer, who served as the deputy USTR under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, is regarded by many across his country as a “battle-scarred veteran of trade negotiations”. He has always been a vociferous critic of China’s “unfair” trade practices, and Washington’s ballooning trade deficit with Beijing, which stood at $378.6 billion in 2018.

Lighthizer, a Republican, is one of the few officials in the Trump administration to remain in his chair since his appointment in May 2017, while a host of other officials have either resigned or been fired — with the latter list including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

However, Lighthizer didn’t take long to make an impact, concluding the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), an upgraded version of the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The agreement finally got signed Wednesday after protracted negotiations.

Lighthizer was also instrumental in getting China to agree to a trade deal after a prolonged economic war. The deal is being touted as ‘phase 1’, while preparations for ‘phase 2’ of the deal are already underway.

Also read: India was not in Trump’s hit list of countries over trade but still had tariffs imposed

For Lighthizer, China is the new Japan

Extracting a deal out of China could have been difficult but not impossible for Lighthizer, given his experience of dealing with Japan as the Deputy USTR under Reagan in 1983.

Back then, Lighthizer took on the issue of rising steel imports with Japan, which made economist Jagdish Bhagwati call it “aggressive unilateralism” by the US.

Lighthizer, who attended Georgetown University at the same time as President Bill Clinton, had previously worked as chief counsel for the Finance Committee under Senator Bob Dole in 1978, before being appointed the Deputy USTR in 1983.

Lighthizer believes President Reagan was “the icon of modern conservatism”, who “imposed quotas on imported steel, protected Harley-Davidson from Japanese competition, restrained import of semiconductors and automobiles, and took myriad similar steps to keep American industry strong”. The USTR is now following that model in balancing out America’s trade imbalances with China.

What is expected from Lighthizer’s India visit?

Next, it is India’s turn, and Lighthizer is expected to ensure that he secures a win-win deal from the Narendra Modi government, however limited it might be, even though Trump believes India is the “tariff king”.

Lighthizer, hailed as a champion of free trade but one who addresses unfair competition, will surely not let New Delhi have it easy, even if both countries are to launch talks for a free trade agreement during Trump’s visit to India later next month.

Also read: Donald Trump trade deal raises issue of trusting China to deliver


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