Was the terse response from U.S. President Donald Trump’s new trade representative, signalling perhaps some commitment to the Asia-Pacific, when CNBC asked him what message he hoped to convey to trade ministers gathered at an APEC meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam.
His message to trade ministers seeking a sense of the U.S. world view will probably sound like, “I’m new to the job, but be assured the U.S. has not turned its back on trade,” said Deborah Elms, founder and executive director of the Asian Trade Centre. “It will be the right rhetoric.”
Lighthizer seems to be striking the right tone, at least, in a flurry of hastily scheduled bilateral meetings at the sprawling National Convention Centre in Hanoi.
Talks over the future of the TPP, from which the U.S. withdrew in January, are overshadowing the APEC meeting.
“Eleven countries have made their judgement on the assumption that the U.S. will be in TPP,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in an exclusive interview with CNBC. “We need to consider what is best and the 11 countries must be united.”
And there appears to be a concerted effort in Hanoi to show unity and positivity on proceeding. Malaysian Minister of International Trade and Industry Mustapa Mohamed said, “We will sort it out. We are open.”
New Zealand Trade Minister Todd McClay, whose country is one of two (along with Japan) to have already ratified the TPP, said his nation never thought the pact was dead.
“I would expect a statement from the ministers when we meet on Sunday to show commitment to moving forward with that set of common rules, an endorsement of the importance of high-quality trade agreements that allow regional economic integration and a pathway toward some form of decision toward the end of the year.”
That would mean coming close on the calendar to the APEC leaders’ summit, also here in Vietnam in November, a meeting President Trump will be attending.
“There will be a deliverable,” said the Asian Trade Centre’s Executive Director Deborah Elms. “The intention is to announce deal by the leaders’ summit.”
The USTR ignored questions after leaving his one-on-one with Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshima Seko , who described the talks as “very friendly, very fruitful.”
A statement from Lighthizer’s team said the U.S.-Japan meeting was cordial and that the officials “agreed to promote mutually beneficial trade, fight trade barriers and trade distorting measures, foster economic growth, and help establish high standards,” while working harder together to address “common concerns with respect to unfair trade practices utilized by third-countries.”
WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdh praised Lighthizer’s experience and knowledge of the multilateral system, but admitted the USTR has a hard, unenviable job ahead of him.
“It’s going to be tough to see how he can connect all the dots between what the president says, what the private sector has been saying, what the agricultural sector has been saying, what Congress has been saying, the different parties. It’s a lot of moving parts.”