US commerce hawk hunts greater fish in Trump’s China battles

Earlier than becoming a member of Donald Trump’s administration, one among Nazak Nikakhtar’s essential jobs was to symbolize US catfish farmers looking for punitive duties in opposition to Vietnamese importers. 

The 45-year-old Iranian-born commerce lawyer and economist has since moved from the comparatively small pool of the transpacific seafood enterprise to the rougher waters of the US president’s commerce struggle with China — a little-known hardliner enjoying a giant function in implementing the administration’s flamable worldwide financial agenda. 

Ms Nikakhtar is the appearing head of the commerce division’s bureau of trade and safety — and awaiting affirmation to be its everlasting chief — at a time when the unit is within the highlight due to Mr Trump’s strikes to increase export controls within the stand-off with Beijing. 

This month, Mr Trump positioned Huawei, the Chinese language telecommunications community firm, on a particular export blacklist stopping American firms from promoting to it with out a licence, with extra Chinese language expertise firms anticipated to endure an identical destiny. 

Though the choice was made by the US president, Ms Nikakhtar is overseeing the crackdown. Individuals accustomed to her views say she has not shied away from warning American companies of the hazard of intensive financial relationships with China. They usually say she is extra in favour of disentangling the 2 economies reasonably than fostering nearer ties. 

“There’s no query she’s hawkish. She believes that far an excessive amount of of the provision chain has moved to China and that whether or not pursuing self-interest or not, firms have prioritised the brief time period over the nationwide curiosity,” mentioned one individual accustomed to her views.

To some, this method has positioned Ms Nikakhtar squarely within the camp of Peter Navarro, the White Home manufacturing coverage chief and writer of a e book referred to as Demise by China. Others say that her lawyerly experience aligns her extra with Robert Lighthizer, the US commerce consultant main the negotiations with Beijing — who is thought for his rigour and a spotlight to element, along with a worldview that’s deeply sceptical of globalisation. 

Both method, Ms Nikakhtar’s speedy rise to a key place within the US administration worries some lobbyists and export management consultants, who’re in search of flexibility and pragmatism to forestall a backlash in opposition to US firms. “I feel there shall be rising concern within the enterprise group about her,” mentioned one former senior commerce division official. 

Hanging the stability between sustaining the competitiveness of US firms and on the similar time defending its nationwide safety . . . it’s not a simple job

Not solely are US expertise firms cautious of stringent export controls as a result of they may lose billions of gross sales to the Chinese language market, however they’re additionally nervous such controls might hamper US innovation in the long term by slicing off their entry to analysis and improvement in China. 

A commerce division official mentioned Ms Nikakhtar was “involved about China’s damaging behaviour and every other nation that poses a big menace to US nationwide safety”. She had additionally “repeatedly defined to US trade that our technological management is synonymous with nationwide safety”. As just lately as final week, Ms Nikakhtar “actively” engaged with US enterprise on “related points” together with Huawei, the official mentioned.

One of many difficulties in assessing Ms Nikakhtar’s method is that she has made few public remarks since becoming a member of the Trump administration. Ms Nikakhtar declined a request for an interview.

Nevertheless, a glimpse of her opinions got here in congressional testimony in late 2017, when she complained that America’s “dedication to free and truthful commerce” was not all the time mutual, echoing the US president’s frequent laments. “I watched US trade battle to remain alive . . . our industries have been eroding, our output was declining and good hardworking People have been shedding their jobs as a result of our buying and selling companions weren’t competing pretty,” she mentioned.

Ms Nikakhtar additionally described how she emigrated from Iran to the US in 1979, aged six, within the aftermath of the revolution together with her dad and mom who grew to become physicians at veterans’ hospitals. “I knew rising up that I wished to be a part of the American industrial progress,” she mentioned.

Alan Value, chair of the worldwide commerce observe at legislation agency Wiley Rein, recalled that Ms Nikakhtar was a part of a coalition of US and European attorneys in 2015 and 2016 attempting to persuade the EU to not grant China the standing of a market economic system.

“She was very accustomed to the financial distortions in China that exist as a result of it’s state-owned, state-managed, state-controlled — and offers unbelievable unfair benefits,” Mr Value mentioned. A vital problem for her shall be to see if she will be able to forge widespread trigger with US allies in attempting to implement extra stringent export controls on China, particularly given the collapse in belief in transatlantic relations.

Ms Nikakhtar’s first place working for Mr Trump — below Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary and metal trade investor — was as assistant secretary for trade and evaluation. This instantly put her on the entrance line of one other controversial commerce gambit by the US president. Ms Nikakhtar performed a pivotal function in crafting a confidential report despatched to Mr Trump in February that labelled automotive imports a menace to US nationwide safety, offering the authorized foundation for the US to slap tariffs on allies together with the EU, Japan and South Korea.

Toyota, which has large manufacturing operations within the US, responded scathingly after the feedback have been made public this month, saying the message was that its investments have been unwelcome. “Our operations and workers contribute considerably to the American lifestyle, the US economic system and usually are not a nationwide safety menace,” it mentioned.

Throughout her time in non-public observe, her shoppers included, other than the catfish farmers, overseas firms comparable to Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Metal. She represented the United Arab Emirates in a case that includes Mr Lighthizer working for US Metal on the opposite aspect. Her husband, Eugene Degnan, can also be a commerce lawyer, on the Washington-based agency of Morris Manning & Martin, which frequently represents overseas exporters dealing with attainable punitive duties. A commerce division official mentioned Ms Nikakhtar had “recused herself from all issues that pose any potential battle, together with all issues involving her former legislation agency and her husband’s legislation agency”.

Chuck Levy, of Cassidy Levy Kent, the legislation agency the place Ms Nikakhtar labored earlier than becoming a member of the Trump administration, advised enterprise had little to concern from her hawkishness. “She’s good and hardworking and digs into the details and she or he asks questions. I don’t assume she’s an ideological or close-minded individual,” he mentioned. However her broader activity, of deciphering Mr Trump’s fusion of financial points with nationwide safety, was definitely daunting.

“Hanging the stability between sustaining the competitiveness of US firms and on the similar time defending its nationwide safety . . . it’s not a simple job” mentioned Mr Levy.

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