U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday named Robert Lighthizer, an official in the Reagan administration and harsh critic of China's trade practices, to be his chief trade negotiator, responsible for better deals aimed at reducing U.S. trade deficits.
Trump, who promised during his presidential campaign to renegotiate international trade deals like NAFTA and punish companies that ship work overseas, said in announcing his choice that Lighthizer would help "fight for good trade deals that put the American worker first."
Lighthizer is a former deputy U.S. trade representative under former Republican President Ronald Reagan who helped to stem the tide of imports from Japan in the 1980s with threats of quotas and punitive tariffs.
His return to the agency follows nearly three decades as a lawyer representing U.S. steelmakers and other companies in anti-dumping and anti-subsidy cases.
Lighthizer has argued that China has failed to live up to commitments made in 2001 when it joined the World Trade Organization and that tougher tactics are needed to change the system, even if it means deviating from World Trade Organization rules.
"Years of passivity and drift among U.S. policymakers have allowed the U.S.-China trade deficit to grow to the point where it is widely recognized as a major threat to our economy," Lighthizer wrote in 2010 congressional testimony.
"Going forward, U.S. policymakers should take these problems more seriously, and should take a much more aggressive approach in dealing with China," he wrote.
China responded to the appointment in standard diplomatic language at a daily briefing in Beijing by the foreign ministry spokesman.
"As has been repeated multiple times and proven by facts, China-US economic cooperation is in its essence for mutual benefit and win-win results," China's foreign ministry said in a statement released late Wednesday.
"After years of development, China and the US have been closely bonded by converging interests. For issues that crop up in our economic relations, proper solutions shall be found on the basis of mutual respect and equal treatment. China and the US should work together to ensure the sound and steady development of bilateral economic ties, as this serves the common interests of the two countries and peoples."
Lighthizer is regarded as an experienced tactician with an intimate knowledge of trade tools that were widely used before the WTO was created in 1995, including "Section 301" tariffs used to stem a tide of imports of Japanese steel and vehicles in the 1980s.
During his tenure, Reagan struck the 1985 Plaza Accord currency deal with Japan, Germany and other major trading partners that brought down the dollar's value and encouraged more foreign companies to set up U.S. manufacturing plants.
"Bob Lighthizer is very smart, very strategic and totally fearless," said a Washington attorney who has worked with him for three decades but asked not to be named. "You can expect him to use every tool available to create leverage to get China and anyone else to stop the cheating. He is no fan of the WTO."
Still, Lighthizer is not expected to be the Trump administration's leading voice on trade policy. Last month, Trump's team said that task would fall to the U.S. Commerce Secretary nominee, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross.
Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has also named Peter Navarro, an economist and adviser who has urged a hard line against China, as the head of a newly formed White House National Trade Council.