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U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer Discusses Ongoing Trade Talks With China


It's shaping up to be a big week for President Trump on trade. Tomorrow, he meets with Republican lawmakers on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement or the USMCA. That's the deal that country signed last fall to replace NAFTA, but it still needs approval from Congress, and Democrats have raised concerns.

Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer heads to Beijing this week along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. They're still trying to secure a deal that would end the trade dispute between the U.S. and China.

Ambassador Lighthizer is here in the studio now to talk more about China. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROBERT LIGHTHIZER: Thank you very much. Also, it's a pleasure to be here.

CHANG: So President Trump has twice extended the deadline for a deal with China. How optimistic are you that a deal will be reached by the end of next month, as hoped?

LIGHTHIZER: Well, I mean, I get that a lot. I'm not an optimistic person by nature.

CHANG: OK (laughter).

LIGHTHIZER: I always say I'm hoping but not necessarily hopeful. So, you know, we're working at it. If there's a great deal to be gotten, we'll get it - if not, we'll find another plan.

CHANG: Fair enough. Well, you told the Senate Finance Committee this month that there were still "major issues" - that's a quote - that needed to be resolved. Do you see signs that China is willing to give ground on major issues like intellectual property protection or forced transfers of American technology?

LIGHTHIZER: Yes. I think that on those issues and a variety of others, China is interested in having a deal. Now, the question will be the details and enforceability.

CHANG: Well, on forced technology transfers, isn't this a problem that's now less common than it used to be?

LIGHTHIZER: Actually, I think it's probably about as common as it always was. I mean, it's a - it is a governmental policy that has worked for China to get technology. When companies come, there are a variety of means they have whereby people will turn over their technology to public bodies or central or provincial governments. And then eventually that - too often that intellectual property finds its way into the hands of competitors.

CHANG: Though a number of scholars believe the Trump administration is overstating how often forced technology transfers are happening.

LIGHTHIZER: Well, I guess I don't know who those scholars are. We did an eight-month study on it, and I think it's the very strong view of the people that we talked to that it's a very serious problem and has been for a number of years.

CHANG: That said, how is the U.S. going to enforce ending forced technology transfers? I mean, what recourse would an American company have under this deal to actually stop a so-called forced technology transfer?

LIGHTHIZER: So the typical situation is a government official asks for technology or asks you to turn it over to someone else or make you go into a joint venture. So you have to have very specific obligations that stop requirements for joint ventures in many cases that stop government officials from asking you to turn over your trade secrets to your competitors or to people who might give them to the competitors.

So you have a basic set of obligations. And then you have a process where somebody would take a case to me. And then I would go to my Chinese counterparts, and they would have to work their way through the system to stop it. They're committed to do this, but it's going to be a question of whether they can get all the layers of government, I think, to follow through.

CHANG: They're committed to having this never ever happen in any scenario of forced technology transfer, when two parties agree with eyes open that the cost of doing business for this particular American business would be to transfer some technology over to the Chinese?

LIGHTHIZER: So you're kind of conflating two things, I think. In the one case, it's forced technology transfer. All right. In another case, you're saying, well, there may be a business situation where it makes sense to do something like that. If you're forced to do it, it's inappropriate. If you're cajoled into it, it's still bad. But I'm not saying in all cases you shouldn't be able to enter into a business arrangement.


LIGHTHIZER: But what we're objecting to is situations where it's either required by law or where it's forced. Either - I mean, there are situations where you want to site a plant in a certain area. The local officials require you to give information that can be used by competitors. So it's really the compelling of the transfer or even the encouraging of this transfer.

CHANG: Let me ask you this. The U.S. is asking for fundamental structural changes to China's approach to its economy. For example, the U.S. doesn't want to compete against state-sponsored industries in China. How realistic is it that the Communist Party in China is going to change basically its model for doing business just because the U.S. is demanding it right now, especially by the end of next month?

LIGHTHIZER: No. Well, in the first place, you know, everything won't happen in a month, for sure that's true. But I think you have to start with the proposition that there are people in China who believe that reform is a good idea. And you have to believe that those people are at a very senior level.

So the kinds of things that we're asking for are not anti-Chinese at all. Protection of intellectual property is not anti-Chinese. Stopping people from forcing transfer of technology is not anti-Chinese. In fact, the reformers would say it's pro-Chinese. It will help their economy, not hurt their economy.

So I don't think it's unreasonable at all to expect that they operate on commercial principles the same as the rest of the world if they're going to take advantage of those principles and those markets in the United States.

CHANG: All right. That's U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Thank you so much for coming in today.

LIGHTHIZER: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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