US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

After a series of failed rounds of trade talks, there is one thing that has been made abundantly clear for leaders in Beijing: Steven Mnuchin is not calling the shots.

There has never been much doubt that US President Donald Trump is willing to change course on a dime and back away from deals at the last minute. But the sheer number of times that Trump has specifically undercut his Treasury Secretary, who at various points has been the ostensible lead in trade negotiations with Beijing, has left Mnuchin with no credibility.

Standing in contrast to Mnuchin on the issue of trade is America’s top trade official, Robert Lighthizer. The US trade representative is, according to his Mexican counterpart, the only man who counts – besides Trump – when it comes to striking a deal.

From a profile by Bloomberg this week on Lighthizer:

“Asked what he had learned about negotiating with the Trump administration after the U.S. and Mexico announced an agreement in principle on Nafta in late August, Mexico’s economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, says: ‘Any deal where Lighthizer is not responsible for the architecture doesn’t see the light of the day.”

The problem for those still hoping for a quick end to America’s trade war with China is that he does not look as keen to strike a deal with Beijing as he has with Mexico.

“He believes strongly that the endgame is China,” his brother, Jim Lighthizer, said, adding: “He believes that it is going to be a long, long haul with China.”

With high-profile figures such as Jack Ma warning that the trade war could last decades, it appears the list of people who understand this is growing.

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