Trump trade chief warns of tough work ahead on China deal

Trump trade chief warns of tough work ahead on China deal
© Anna Moneymaker

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE’s top trade negotiator told lawmakers Wednesday that finalizing a trade agreement with China is just one step in a long battle with Beijing over alleged unfair trade practices.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerChinese, US negotiators fine-tuning details of trade agreement: report The Trump economy keeps roaring ahead Trump says no discussion of extending deadline in Chinese trade talks MORE, testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee, downplayed hopes that the administration is close to resolving trade disputes with China. Lighthizer said that while the administration has made progress toward a deal to loosen Chinese trade barriers, the U.S. is still far from leveling the playing field.

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“We might be able to have an agreement that helps us turn the corner in our economic relationship with China,” Lighthizer said. But he warned that “there’s not going to be one negotiation” that solves the dispute altogether.

“I believe other problems are going to arise and they’ll have to be dealt with,” Lighthizer told the committee.

Lighthizer's appearance comes at a crucial stretch in U.S.-China trade talks.

Trump last week postponed an increase in tariffs on Chinese imports planned for March 1 to give negotiators more time to reach an accord.

The president said Monday that talks were going well and a deal between the White House and Beijing could come “very, very soon.”

Trump has imposed tariffs on roughly $250 billion in imports from China, and Beijing has responded with retaliatory levies on billions of dollars' worth of U.S. agricultural exports.

There is broad bipartisan support in Congress for Trump’s efforts to tackle Chinese trade practices. Lawmakers from both parties praised Lighthizer’s work to achieve major structural reforms and urged him not to accept a deal without a robust enforcement framework.

But the protracted trade battle, now stretching almost a year, has taken a toll on U.S. farmers, ranchers and manufacturers who’ve lost foreign contracts amid the standoff.

"This administration had chosen to take a path of high-risk confrontation. It must hold out for a good deal,” said Rep. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealDem House chairs: Mueller report 'does not exonerate the president' Dems, Trump harden 2020 battle lines on Tax Day On The Money: Five things to watch on first Tax Day under Trump's law | Trump lawyer disputes Dem reasons for requesting tax returns | Trump struggles to reshape Fed MORE (D-Mass.), chairman of House Ways and Means Committee. “The future of America's economic prosperity is in the balance.”

There is also pressure on the administration to quickly find ways to ease trade tensions.

While lawmakers generally approve of aggressive action against China, members of both parties expressed concerns about how the trade war has damaged industrial and agricultural producers in their districts.

U.S. exports fell $4 billion and imports rose $5 billion in December, according to federal data released Wednesday, as American producers struggle to maintain foreign sales.

“The damage could be fatal,” said Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyLeft-center divide forces Dems to scrap budget vote Hillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — Lawmaker sees political payback in fight over 'deepfakes' measure | Tech giants to testify at hearing on 'censorship' claims | Google pulls the plug on AI council Lawmaker alleges political payback in failed 'deepfakes' measure MORE (D-Fla.) “When is this going to end? What will their sacrifices have allowed you to achieve?"

Farm bankruptcies have also risen due in part to the higher relative cost of U.S. agricultural exports, driven by tariffs.

The trade talks have dragged on over the complicated issues at stake.

The White House is seeking major concessions from Beijing in exchange for the removal of tariffs. The requests include greater protections against intellectual property theft, greater U.S. access to Chinese financial markets and major boosts to purchases of American crops.

“We are making real progress,” Lighthizer told lawmakers. He praised the president, adding that because of Trump’s “insight and grit, we are in the position to deal with this problem for the first time.”

But he also warned that even if China agrees to ease trade barriers, it could take years of work to make sure the deal is enforced.

“Our hope is to have specific language on specific issues that is enforceable through a very clear process,” Lighthizer said.

Lawmakers and presidents have complained for decades about China’s trade practices and a slew of broken promises from Beijing. Several lawmakers asked Lighthizer how they could be sure China would stick to an agreement with the White House and pressed him to guarantee that Beijing would enforce any agreement.

“Let’s say you have amazing success, the angels sing, whatever happens. How do we future-proof an agreement?” asked Rep. David SchweikertDavid SchweikertHouse Ethics Committee extends probe of Arizona GOP lawmaker On The Money: Trump trade chief sees tough work ahead on China | Cohen offers gripping testimony | Tells lawmakers Trump inflated assets | Deduction cap could hit 11 million taxpayers | Senate confirms top IRS lawyer Trump trade chief warns of tough work ahead on China deal MORE (R-Ariz.). “What do we do so we’re not back having the same discussion a year or two from now?" 

The challenges Lighthizer faces in negotiating a deal were on full display last week. The trade representative has been forced to contend with a fractious White House team, including the president, who contradicted his trade representative in front of reporters during an Oval Office press conference. 

While Lighthizer said the Trump administration was working on a memorandum of understanding with China, which wouldn't require congressional action, Trump insisted that a pact with Beijing must be an "agreement."

It's unclear when talks with continue, but Trump has said both he and Chinese President Xi Jinping must sign off on the final terms.

Trump has suggested he could meet with at Mar-a-Lago to close the agreement.

Updated at 3:45 p.m.