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U.S. Trade Envoy: NAFTA Talks Moving at ‘Warp Speed,’ Progress Unclear

Trucks travel on an overpass to and from the World Trade Bridge, in Laredo, Texas, on Nov. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

WASHINGTON – NAFTA negotiations between the U.S., Mexico and Canada are moving quickly, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Monday, but actual progress is unclear.

“We’re moving at warp speed, but we don’t whether we’re ever going to get to a conclusion. That’s the problem,” Lighthizer said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re running very quickly somewhere.”

Officials from all three countries have expressed interest in reaching significant consensus before November midterm elections in the U.S. and general elections in Mexico, scheduled for July.

The first round of North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations wrapped up in late August, with President Trump criticizing Mexico and Canada via Twitter for being difficult in re-working the 23-year-old trade agreement. Trump during his run for the White House blasted NAFTA as the worst trade deal in history and threatened to pull the U.S. out of the agreement.

The third round of negotiations is scheduled to begin on Sept. 23 in Ottawa, Canada, and four more five-day sessions of negotiation are scheduled before the end of the year. Lighthizer said that elections are a motivating factor in the pace of talks, as well as the impact that the uncertainty of the discussion is having on U.S. companies.

“The whole process is having real-life effects on farmers and ranchers and business people trying to do business, particularly in the United States and Mexico but also in Canada,” he said.

Lighthizer said that the administration is weighing every trade deal that the U.S. has entered into, and he lobbied for more muscle, as well as public discourse, in trying to reach the ultimate objective: an open market in which American companies can reach their competitive potential. The president has said that NAFTA and other trade deals leave the U.S. at a significant disadvantage. Lighthizer on Monday said that he favors bilateral trade agreements, as opposed to multilateral agreements, which introduce greater disruption.

“The working assumption is that if you have an $18 trillion economy, you can do better negotiating individually,” Lighthizer said while discussing trade deals in Asia. “You can argue both sides of that. I happen to agree with the president. Not only can you negotiate better agreements, but you can enforce them more easily.”

Lighthizer was asked about his office’s recent investigation concerning the Chinese government’s policies and practices related to technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation, which the U.S. opened in August to determine whether China is engaging in unreasonable or discriminatory practices that burden or restrict American commerce. The probe was opened under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. He said that every major American CEO that he has discussed the issue with has said there are problems with Chinese trade practices.

Among the issues Lighthizer listed were American companies forced to enter into joint ventures with China or turn over intellectual property to Chinese companies; having to license intellectual property at less than market value; and intellectual property piracy.

“We’re not going to pre-judge it, but there’s an awful lot to indicate that there’s a problem here,” Lighthizer said. “And intellectual property is one of the real competitive advantages that the United States has. Not that the rest of the world isn’t clever also, but the United States has developed an enormous amount of intellectual property, and getting the benefit of that for our companies and their workers is very, very important, so to me, it’s a fundamental case.”

He said that while the U.S. is using Section 301, it’s also considering whether China is violating any World Trade Organization laws, and officials are considering remedies outside of traditional trade guidelines.