Top China Critic Becomes Its Defender

WASHINGTON — For decades, Robert E. Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, was reliably one of Washington’s toughest critics when it came to China and its trade practices.

But since brokering a trade deal with Beijing in January, he has become one of China’s biggest defenders within the administration, emerging as an obstacle to lawmakers and other top White House officials who want to punish China over its treatment of ethnic Muslims and begin trade talks with Taiwan.

Over the past several months, Mr. Lighthizer has pushed back on several proposed policy measures that rankled Beijing, arguing those efforts could disrupt the U.S.-China trade pact that he and President Trump spent more than two years trying to forge, according to several former government officials and other people familiar with the conversations.

Mr. Lighthizer has also curtailed his public criticisms of China, instead touting Beijing’s efforts to uphold the trade pact and live up to its end of the deal.

Those views have brought Mr. Lighthizer into conflict with more hawkish members of the Trump administration, including State Department officials who have advocated closer ties with Taiwan, along with members of Congress.

On Thursday, 50 U.S. senators of both parties sent Mr. Lighthizer a letter urging him to begin the formal process of negotiating a trade pact with Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as part of its territory. Such a move would likely anger Beijing, which sees certain partnerships with Taiwan as an affront to China’s sovereignty.

“We are confident that a U.S.-Taiwan trade agreement would promote security and economic growth for the United States, Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific as a whole,” they wrote. “We urge the administration to prioritize a comprehensive trade agreement with Taiwan, and we look forward to working with you to secure this framework.”

Proponents say dealing directly with Taiwan could help counter some of China’s growing influence in technology and commerce, while also helping to strengthen a democratic ally. But Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said concerns over preserving the trade deal with China were likely to sink the prospects of trade negotiations, at least for the remainder of this administration.

“The administration, particularly of course U.S.T.R., they’re focused like a laser on this trade deal with China,” she said. “The president doesn’t want it to fall apart.”

Mr. Lighthizer’s warmer stance toward Beijing comes amid growing tensions between the United States and China. Mr. Trump has said he is “not happy” with China for allowing coronavirus to spread beyond its borders and has ratcheted up punishment on Chinese tech companies, like TikTok and WeChat, saying they pose a threat to national security.

Yet Mr. Trump has not ripped up the trade deal or threatened to take additional trade action against Beijing. In part, that’s because the president faces pressure — from American banks, businesses and farmers — not to let commercial ties with China deteriorate further, especially right before the election.

The State Department “did what they could in their realm of responsibility,” she said. “But at the end of the day, State cannot negotiate trade agreements, and that’s what Taiwan wants.”

In September, Mr. Krach visited the island to discuss technology investments and other economic ties with Taiwanese officials, and dine with Ms. Tsai and T.S.M.C’s retired founder, Morris Chang, people familiar with the trip say. But Mr. Krach did not touch on the issue of trade talks.

Edward Wong contributed reporting.

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