U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer Discusses Trade Issues With China NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer about America's trade relationship with China, and what he hopes the tariffs on Chinese goods will accomplish.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer Discusses Trade Issues With China

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer Discusses Trade Issues With China

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NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer about America's trade relationship with China, and what he hopes the tariffs on Chinese goods will accomplish.


And next we're going to meet a man engaged in the fight of his life. Robert Lighthizer is the U.S. trade representative and now America's chief trade negotiator with China, the only country that rivals the U.S. in economic size and strength, a country with an economy poised to overtake the U.S. within the next few decades, a country now locked in a trade war with the U.S.

So what is the American goal in confronting China, and how hard-line is the Trump administration prepared to be to achieve it - questions we can put to Robert Lighthizer because he is here live in our studio. Ambassador Lighthizer, welcome.

ROBERT LIGHTHIZER: Thank you, Mary Louise. It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: Start with the time frame. You have agreed a 90-day pause for talks to try to end this trade war. What specifically you need to see at the end of these 90 days to chalk this up as a success?

LIGHTHIZER: Well, we need to see structural changes in China or an agreement to have structural changes...

KELLY: Like what?

LIGHTHIZER: ...And an opening market. So if I could just take a step back and say, how did we get here to where we are - and I would say, first of all, we have a very large trade deficit with China that's been growing. And it's not the result of economic forces entirely. So the president looked at the situation and said the most pressing part of this is the theft and forced technology transfer from the United States companies to Chinese companies. And we did a study, which I gave you a copy of...

KELLY: You did. I have it right here.

LIGHTHIZER: ...That took eight or nine months. And it's a couple hundred pages. We've since done a supplement of it. And it demonstrates that there is a serious problem of failure to protect intellectual property. We should take a step back and remind ourselves that is really the lifeblood of the American economy. We are very good innovators and very good creators.

KELLY: And I'll stop you if I may because what you're describing are big challenges that have been big challenges in the U.S.-China trade relationship for a long time. Are you confident that you will be able to make enough progress to continue pausing this trade war in the next 90 days or - I guess we're now seven days in - so in the next 83 days?

LIGHTHIZER: I would say first of all that - just to underline your point about long it is, if you ask me when was the first time we had an official government-to-government intellectual property crisis with China, it was during George Herbert Walker Bush's administration in 1991. That's how long it is. Since then, we've probably seen China agreed to correct this problem or some aspect of it maybe 20 times. And they have done none of that till now.

So when you say, am I confident, I'm never confident. I've been doing this a long time. I've been negotiating a long time. I've gotten a lot of deals done. If there's a deal to be done, the president wants us to do it. If it's in the interest of the United States, if it opens up their market and if it requires them to do structural changes that will protect our technology, then the president wants to do it. If not, we won't have one. I'm going in here expecting to work hard like we have in all other respects. We have a lot of expertise in my building. And I have it myself. And the Chinese will bring a lot of experts.

It's a difficult thing to do. I don't want to suggest for a second that it's not. It's very tough. They've had a system that's worked very well for them for a long time. As you say how much has their economy's grown, their economy's grown from about about a trillion dollars in 1999 to, as you know, over 12 trillion now.

KELLY: With that as context, let me steer you back to my question, which was, what specifically do you want to see that at the end of this 90 days, you'll think, OK, we did it; we got it done? Is there something in writing, a specific line that you're holding out for?

LIGHTHIZER: Well, we have a lot of things. We've exchanged a lot of papers. This has been going on for a while. I don't want your listeners to think that this is something that just came up in the last few days. This has been going on for a year and a half. We've had a number of talks. We've exchanged a lot of papers. The reason I mentioned our study is the essence of the study is forced technology transfer, cybertheft of technology and state capital used together with technology.

So we work back from there. What do we need to have a success? We need an open market or a more open market, more access by American companies. We need protection of intellectual property. We need to stop cybertheft. We need to stop forced technology transfer - that is to say giving your technology in order to do business in China, which is something that is - we think inconsistent with...

KELLY: And which, as you mentioned, is something the U.S. has been pushing for generations...

LIGHTHIZER: That's correct.

KELLY: ...Since before you came in and started working on all this. So how long - if you don't get what you want in this 90-day window, how long do you anticipate keeping tariffs on China?

LIGHTHIZER: Well, I don't want to address that right now. My...

KELLY: It's a question on a lot of people's minds, on a lot of American manufacturers' and farmers' minds.

LIGHTHIZER: Yeah, and it is - it's a fair question. If you believe that we have a very serious problem, one that is really costing America billions and billions of dollars and an awful lot of jobs and is getting worse and worse and worse, then you have to realize this may take a long time. Our hope is that it's something that can be managed over a period of time. But right now, there's...

KELLY: But you won't put any days, months, years...

LIGHTHIZER: No, there's no time limit. There's no timeline. The way this works is the tariffs are in place until the president decides the tariffs go out of place. And the remedy has to be linked to the kinds of things that we found in the report. So we have a very serious, very difficult problem. It's one that we think, one, we can make substantial improvements in market access by having the Chinese purchase. And then we have talked through and expect them to want to make a number of other changes that will protect technology.

KELLY: If I may put this very difficult complex problem, as you describe it, in personal terms, I interviewed a soybean farmer today, Josh Gackle. He was speaking to me from his farm in North Dakota, and here's what he told me.


JOSH GACKLE: Year over year comparison, we're proximately 80 percent below what we typically would have shipped to China at this time last year. Not being able to get your product or sell your product to who has historically been your No. 1 customer makes things very difficult.

KELLY: Ambassador Lighthizer, he was describing grain bins stuffed with soy beans that he would rather have on a train headed to the West Coast to put it on a boat and send it to China. And instead it's stacked up out there. What would you say to him and other farmers like him?

LIGHTHIZER: Well, I would say the president is very concerned about American agriculture. He has us going out every day at USTR, my agency, and trying to open up new markets. We're talking to the Japanese. We're talking to the Europeans. We're talking to the Indians. We're talking to a variety of other countries trying to open up...

KELLY: But can you say hand-over-heart at this point that the U.S. trade war with China isn't hurting the U.S. more than China so far?

LIGHTHIZER: I certainly think it is hurting China more than it is hurting the United States. But our objective is not to hurt anybody. Our objective is to make changes so that it's in the long-term best interest of the United States. If you don't start with the proposition that this is an extremely important question for the future of American industry and American jobs - if you don't start with that, then none of it makes any sense. That's why the president had us sit down and do such a careful study.

The reality is we have a very serious problem. And if this was a minor problem that we were worrying about, then you would have to balance what it's costing. But the reality is this is a major, major issue, and it's one that has to be sorted out. And the president has enormous amount of compassion for soybean farmers and other farmers.

And I would just make one other point quickly. If we are open this market, there's a lot more sales in China for U.S. farmers - much, much more than they do. They're are only about $20 billion now. They should be double that or more.

KELLY: Robert Lighthizer, thank you. United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on NPR News.

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