USTR Lighthizer's African dream
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer sparked a new conversation in trade circles on Wednesday when he floated the idea of the Trump administration launching bilateral trade negotiations with an African country "before very long."
"Personally, I think that before very long we're going to have to pick out an African country — properly selected — and enter into a free trade agreement with that country," he said in an interview on Sirius XM radio channel "Patriot 125."
"And then that will, if done properly, become a model for these other countries."
Lighthizer was responding to a question from radio host David Webb, a contributor to Fox News and Breitbart, about the "vast resource" that the continent presents and whether there was an effort to help boost trade and economic ties with "the more stable parts of Africa." The trade rep noted that Africa is an area the Trump administration is "very, very much focused on."
It's worth noting that the United States already has one bilateral trade deal with an African country, Morocco, and it also has the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows for duty-free treatment of goods from eligible Sub-Saharan African nations. Launching new negotiations with any country or bloc of countries would help Congress fulfill its goal, stated when it last extended AGOA, of exploring ways to increase two-way trade. Lighthizer, in a visit to Togo in August for the AGOA Forum, expressed interest in doing so in part to compete with European nations that have struck reciprocal trade agreements with some AGOA countries.
The relatively unexpected comments from Lighthizer, who does not often comment on trade with Africa, came as welcome news for the business community, which is eager for ways to boost U.S. exports to the continent. "It's an incredibly positive message," said Scott Eisner, president of the U.S.-Africa Business Center at the Chamber of Commerce. He noted that engaging economically with Africa would put the U.S. on the same level as global competitors who have already recognized African countries as strategic partners, adding: "This is a great thing for American businesses who are looking to export products to the continent."
Lighthizer told Webb that he's planning to go to Africa again, though he didn't specify when or where. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will head to the continent in the spring with a trade delegation as part of the president's advisory committee on doing business in Africa, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also expected to travel there potentially as soon as next month.