US President-elect Donald Trump has selected a known China critic and free trade naysayer as the head of the US Trade Representative office in move that adds to the worries of Singapore and other southeast Asian nations alarmed over the protectionist trade policies of the incoming administration.
Robert Lighthizer, who has been named the new USTR chief, is a long time critic of free trade and a former Reagan administration official. The agency has crucial role in pushing the trade agenda of the next US administration as it is mandated with negotiating trade agreements with other countries. The USTR also represents the US at the World Trade Organization.
With Lighthizer's appointment as the trade policy chief, the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is all but official. Trump had made it clear that he would withdraw from the landmark treaty negotiated by Barack Obama, under which US and 11 other countries along the Pacific Rim would drastically reduce tariff restrictions.
"Lighthizer has extensive experience striking agreements that protect some of the most important sectors of our economy, and has repeatedly fought in the private sector to prevent bad deals from hurting Americans ... He will do an amazing job helping turn around the failed trade policies which have robbed so many Americans of prosperity," Trump said in a statement announcing the appointment.
Lighthizer is career trade lawyer who has championed hiking duties on goods imported from competitors including China and the southeast Asian nations. In the early 80s Lighthizer had worked as deputy US trade representative under President Reagan. He is currently a partner with law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Lighthizer's appointment also cements the direction of the new administration with Trump having installed conservative hardliners who heavily leaned on his side of the divisive republican campaign in high profile cabinet positions.
Trump had made anti-China rhetoric the keystone of his trade policy during the campaign and called China a currency manipulator. His promise to crack down on unfair trade practices by China will be accorded high priority in trade policies directed by Lighthizer. The incoming USTR chief had played a key role in the Reagan administration when the US was locked in a trade battle with Japan. Lighthizer will now get a second go at his anti-free trade crusade, with the theatre shifting to China and the Southeast Asia.
"I am fully committed to President-elect Trump's mission to level the playing field for American workers and forge better trade policies which will benefit all Americans," Lighthizer said after he was named the trade chief.
Lighthizer has lashed out at the advocates of free trade, saying they help China become a superwpoer. "Modern free-traders . . . embrace their ideal with a passion that makes Robespierre seem prudent ... They embrace unbridled free trade, even as it helps China become a superpower. They see only bright lines, even when it means bowing to the whims of anti-American bureaucrats at the World Trade Organisation . . . They see nothing but dogma — no matter how many jobs are lost, how high the trade deficit rises or how low the dollar falls," Lighthizer wrote in New York Times in 2008.