By Nikhila Natarajan
New York, Feb 15 (IANS) US President Donald Trumps top trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer, the lynchpin of an impending but elusive trade deal with India, says the game changer in Americas bare knuckle negotiation strategy is that “no one thinks were bluffing” anymore and America is willing to “stir” things up to take home its slice of the pie.
“No one thinks we’re bluffing. When we go in there and say if you don’t do this, we’ll do that, we always do it! It’s been my philosophy you can’t ever have people start thinking you’re bluffing”.
Lighthizer was expected to depart for India this week to try to finalise a deal but his travel plans have reportedly changed. IANS is awaiting a USTR response on revised dates. Trade tensions between US and India have been running high since the Trump Administration’s first blow in 2018 when it slapped tariffs on steel and aluminium exports from multiple countries, including India.
Lighthizer has worked behind the scenes on Trump’s most ambitious trade deals, including most recently with China, Mexico and Canada.
“Just sitting there and talking to them” won’t make the world fairer for American exports, according to Lighthizer.
“There’s somebody in these other countries who’s benefiting and it’s not the consumer, for sure. There’s some rich guy somewhere benefiting from this and if you’re not willing to go in there and stir it up, you’re just not going to get any benefit and that’s what you see from the president.”
Lighthizer describes Trump as “very focused” and “willing to put huge amounts of tariffs on the other side”.
“He’s very very focused. He knows this stuff. He asks very, very tough questions,” Lighthizer says.
Lighthizer’s remarks came during a conversation with the US Agriculture Secretary, uploaded as an unlisted YouTube audio file by the US Agriculture Department barely a week before Lighthizer’s scheduled departure for New Delhi.
The 30 minute conversation offers a rare, behind-the-scenes peek into trade irritants that annoy Trump and also US’ lens on the negotiating pie.
For Lighthizer and team, the “gold standard” for trade deals include “enforceability”, “clearly written requirements” and “access”.
Deals with the UK and India feature prominently on Lighthizer’s list.
“First of all, we have to do a deal with the UK. They’re out of Europe now so that’s an important action that we have to take. We have to get some more concessions from from Europe,” he says.
Lighthizer says he enjoys Trump’s total support. “It is good to know when you go into these meetings with these foreign officials, the President is going to back you up and, and he has he has done that consistently.”
During the same podcast, Lighthizer describes himself as tougher on enforcement than his predecessors.
“They’re the people in my job (that) didn’t do it, we should be going after enforcing the letter of every single agreement we entered into. People expect it,” he says.
Lighthizer makes it clear that agriculture’s primacy is very real and urgent on the US trade agenda.
“That his farmers and ranchers do well is absolutely important, it’s the first things he asks for in any deal,” Lighthizer says about Trump.
In the context of Trump’s India visit, Reuters reported that India has offered to allow imports of US chicken legs, turkey, blueberries and cherries in an all-out effort to make a deal happen.
India has reportedly offered to cut tariffs on chicken legs from 100 percent to 25 per cent while US negotiators want that tariff cut even lower. There is also talk of allowing US access to India’s dairy market with a 5 per cent tariff and quotas, Reuters reported.
Most US-India watchers are all keen to see the latest attempt at a trade deal land well, even if incremental in scope.
Plenty of baggage has been piled on since Trump slapped tariffs in 2018. Delhi held off from immediate retaliation but finally allowed retaliatory tariffs to kick in June 2019 after the Trump administration revoked India’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) status early 2019. The GSP gives duty-free market access to exports from developing countries. In November 2018, US cranked up the pressure on countries importing oil from Iran, handed a six month waiver to India and then slammed the brakes altogether in Spring 2019. In October 2018, India signed a $5.5 billion deal to buy Russian S-400 air defence systems, which will begin arriving late 2020. The Trump administration’s CAATSA strikes at the heart of this deal and there are no guarantees yet of a waiver for India.
Bharath Gopalaswamy of Observer Research Foundation, Alyssa Ayres of Council on Foreign Relations and Daniel Twining of International Republican Institute, who spoke with IANS, have pointed variously to “painful” negotiations, a history of disagreements, and the need for creative negotiating. Jeff Smith of Heritage Foundation has written extensively on how the “best hope” for India-US success is to work on a trade deal that could fend off a “larger trade war and prevent economic friction from further undermining strategic convergence”.
“No one’s going to be able to do another agreement” says Lighthizer, without running parallel to the recent “gold standard” trade deals that the Trump government is headlining.
(Nikhila Natarajan can be contacted at @byniknat)