WASHINGTON - Robert Lighthizer, nominee for U.S. trade representative, indicated that the United States will push Japan to further open its agriculture sector in planned bilateral negotiations.
“I would list, of course, Japan as being a primary target for a place where increased access for agriculture is important,” Lighthizer said Tuesday during his Senate confirmation hearing.
He made the remark after President Donald Trump’s administration accused Japan last week of maintaining nontariff barriers for its automobile market and imposing high import tariffs for foreign farm products.
After withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free trade agreement, in late January, Trump has been calling for bilateral trade deals with major trading partners including Japan that he believes benefit American workers and industry in line with his “America First” agenda.
Lighthizer, who served as deputy USTR under President Ronald Reagan, indirectly criticized Japan and other TPP members for not sufficiently liberalizing their farm trade.
“It’s clear that agriculture would have been a beneficiary of TPP,” he said. “It is hard for me to understand why we tolerate so many barriers to agriculture trade when America is the No. 1 producer of agriculture products.”
“I think opening up markets — more markets for agricultural sales is a very high priority for us,” he added.
The comments have increased the likelihood that the United States will demand a further opening of Japan’s farm market in a high-level economic dialogue the two governments are planning to start in April.
The dialogue will be led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Officials have not ruled out the possibility of exploring a bilateral FTA.
Speaking at the Senate Committee on Finance, Lighthizer said China has substantially manipulated its currency in the past to gain unfair trade advantage, but declined to say if he thinks Beijing still does it.
“In the past, it is my judgment that China was a substantial currency manipulator, and I think we’ve lost a lot of jobs in the United States because of it,” he said.
“Whether China is manipulating the currency right now to weaken it is another question,” he said. “That’s up to the Treasury secretary” to decide.
Trump said during his presidential campaign that he will label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. He has yet to do so, though he has criticized China’s trade practices and massive trade surplus with the United States.
If confirmed, Lighthizer pledged to pursue an “America-first trade policy.”
“I agree with President Trump that we should have an America-first trade policy and that we can do better in negotiating our trade agreements and (be) stronger in enforcing our trade laws,” he said.
Lighthizer also vowed to work with like-minded trading partners “to ensure fair trade and to encourage market efficiency.”
In addition to pulling out of the TPP, Trump has vowed to renegotiate the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.