US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer conferring with Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He in the White House. Photo: AFP

According to recent reports, and judging from a televised exchange in the Oval Office, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has grown impatient with President Donald Trump’s approach to negotiating with China. Trump is expected to pull the trigger on a deal with China soon, and Lighthizer will have a chance on Wednesday to speak publicly on the progress of current trade talks, when he testifies before Congress.

Confronting China on trade is a personal mission for Lighthizer, those who know him reportedly say, and he sees this moment as a critical opportunity for the US to use economic leverage before it is, in his view, too late.

But all signs indicate that Trump is ready to strike a deal, despite the fact that experts widely agree China will not make big concessions on the so-called “structural issues” that Lighthizer is concerned with. The US president has also promised that China will deliver on these issues, which include alleged intellectual-property theft, forced technology transfer and state subsidies.

“The reason there is skepticism that President Trump will be able to get that deal is that the Chinese practices we’re objecting to are really core to the Chinese Communist Party’s mode of government China,” Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, said in an interview on C-SPAN on Monday. “They’re not going to change them.”

If this is the case, Lighthizer knows it better than anyone, as the lead US negotiator for the talks with China.

When he testifies before the House Ways and Means Committee, which is now chaired by a Democrat who will likely be looking for a way to find holes in Trump’s characterization of the talks, the top trade official might not hold back if he has concerns.

But if Lighthizer really wanted to turn the screws on China – which economists note would have meant turning the screws just as hard on the US and the rest of the globe – that ship has likely already sailed.

“In announcing the extension [to the tariff deadline], [Trump] didn’t put a second deadline on it. It is now open-ended and China is very good at long delay. So the question is whether we are still in a state of urgency with maximum pressure under China or whether this kind of friction and long, long talks is simply going to be a feature of US-China relations going forward,” Daly said.

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