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Lawmakers In Congress To Be Briefed On China Trade Talks


Here is one big question for President Trump's trade negotiator. What is the United States gaining through all the expense and pain of a trade war? Robert Lighthizer is leading trade talks with China, and he faces questions before a congressional committee today. Amy Celico is a former government trade negotiator who has long experience with China, and she's come by our studios. Good morning.

AMY CELICO: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I should note this testimony happens just after the president put off an escalation in the trade war to allow time for more talks, which suggests they're getting close to a deal. Looking at it from the outside, do you feel you understand how close they are?

CELICO: Well, if we listen to what the president is saying - and the Chinese confirmed this - there has been substantial progress being made in the talks. They are talking about setting a high-level summit at Mar-a-Lago for the two to finalize an agreement. And so rhetorically, there are signs that there is interest in both sides in a deal being made. The challenge for Ambassador Lighthizer today before Congress is whether or not this deal is going to be the comprehensive deal addressing all of these underlying challenges that we, the United States, have been facing with China for a decade, whether they can do that in this next deal.

INSKEEP: U.S. officials have said on this program, our goal is to fundamentally get China to change the way they do business. This is not a matter of tweaking one trade practice or another.

CELICO: Exactly. And Ambassador Lighthizer has been very consistent on this point. He has said, we are going to be more aggressive than anyone in the past to confront China on its trade practices, its unfair trade practices, that undermine U.S. interests and distort the global trading system. And he said we're going to do that by using all the tools at our disposal, whether they're tariffs, WTO litigation or banding together with like-minded countries to pressure China to change.

INSKEEP: The highest profile of those, of course, is the tariffs on products coming from China, which President Trump has imposed and which he has threatened to impose further, but, as has been widely noted here, it's actually U.S. consumers who pay the tariffs. It's U.S. companies who pay the tariffs, in terms of higher prices. As far as you can tell, is the United States applying the right leverage to get China to move?

CELICO: Well, I think consistently across the board, the U.S. business community did not support application of tariffs as the proper remedy to the situation. The situation being that China distorts global trade rules and is undermining American companies in China. However, now that we're mid-process, the U.S. business community is saying, let's stay tough on China, let's not give away the leverage that we have gained by getting the Chinese to the negotiating table through application of these tariffs. Let's not let up until we have a real deal in place. Not a half deal that only involves purchase agreements, but one that actually in a verifiable way will bring China to change some of the underlying issues that harm American interests.

And that's what Ambassador Lighthizer is going to be hearing about from Capitol Hill this morning. I think he's preaching to the choir in many ways because he, too, wants a comprehensive deal. The question is, to your original point, do we have enough leverage to bring the Chinese to make substantial changes? I think President Trump continuously talking about a deal in the future maybe undermines us a little bit in trying to get and gain and maintain that leverage.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds - is anything happening in China that would make them really want a deal on their own, for their own purposes?

CELICO: Absolutely. The slowing of the Chinese economy is significant. China is about to launch its annual National People's Congress meetings next week in Beijing. There will be significant focus on the economy on the legislative agenda. And so from the Chinese perspective, of course, they want this trade war ended.

INSKEEP: Ms. Celico, thanks very much for coming by. Really appreciate it.

CELICO: Great to be with you.

INSKEEP: Amy Celico is a former China trade negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative's office. She now works for the Albright Stonebridge Group. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.