White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. Photo: AFP
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. Photo: AFP

While top defense and diplomatic officials from the US and China were speaking at a joint press conference on Friday, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro was busy making headlines on trade, not security issues.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Trump administration’s most vocal champion of protectionist trade policies warned Wall Street executives against interfering in negotiations with China, calling them “foreign agents.”

“As part of a Chinese government influence operation these globalist billionaires are putting a full-court press on the White House in advance of the G20 in Argentina,” Navarro told the audience at the think-tank in Washington, DC.

“The mission of these unregistered foreign agents is to pressure this president into some kind of deal,” he said, adding that President Donald Trump “has had the courage and wisdom to stand up to the globalist elites.”

“No good can come of this,” he warned. “If Wall Street is involved and continues to insinuate itself into these negotiations there will be a stench around any deal that’s consummated.”

Navarro’s tirade was an apparent reference to prominent US business leaders that have cultivated relationships with Chinese officials and often act as informal advisers to American presidential administrations. Such individuals are known to have encouraged past presidents to employ restraint in dealings with China but have more recently become a target for hawks in the White House.

In September, executives from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Blackstone visited leaders in Beijing ahead of a planned round of trade talks between US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He in Washington. Whatever Beijing was hoping to achieve from the conversations with representatives from Wall Street, it did not help avert a breakdown in the talks with the White House. Liu He’s trip to Washington was canceled and the US imposed tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese goods.

In his speech on Friday, Navarro tried to define Trump’s mantra as squarely in line with his own calls for protectionism and those of US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

“William McKinley – one of President Trump’s favorite presidents – in the 1896 campaign his campaign slogan was ‘patriotism, protection, and prosperity,’” Navarro recounted.

“It was that slogan that led to strong tariffs and sound money policy … as well as what was the catalyst for very strong economic growth. If that sounds familiar you may have been paying attention to what’s been going on over the past couple of years,” he said, suggesting that Trump’s tariffs were one driver of recent economic performance.

“Economic security is national security,” is Trump’s slogan, Navarro said. “If you think about everything the Trump administration has been doing … you understand that this really is the guiding principle.”

Trump’s actions, meanwhile, have given mixed signals, betraying a somewhat ambiguous position in the middle of Navarro and Lighthizer, on the one hand, and Mnuchin and economic adviser Larry Kudlow on the other. Both Mnuchin and Kudlow, themselves hailing from Wall Street, have at various times been given license to speak on the administration’s behalf on trade issues.

That stark contrast of views within the White House has been one source of consternation in Beijing, which understands little about exactly how far Trump is willing to push the hawkish agenda of his trade advisors before he will listen to advice from those in the administration that want to see a deal.

The sustainability of strong economic growth touted by Navarro on Friday may be a factor that finally decides the answer to that question.

The degree to which Navarro speaks for the president on China policy will also be on display at the end of the month when Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires at the Group of 20 summit.

The schizophrenic White House trade rhetoric has characterized the run-up to the G-20 meeting, with leaks to the press alternately claiming that trade will not even be on the agenda and that it, in fact, is on the agenda and a framework for a deal is being worked out. Trump himself has indicated that he is leaning toward the latter, having said that a deal is in the works.

Trump’s apparent endorsement of a deal, however, is not always a predictor of final decisions. Last spring, he twice undercut deals with China that looked close to consummation, in both cases signaling that Navarro’s side had won over the president.

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