In a stormy first foray abroad for Robert Lighthizer, the new U.S. Trade Representative disagreed over protectionism with Asian and Pacific countries that look skeptically at the Trump administration's "fair trade" agenda.
With the United States on one side and the 20 other members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum on the other at a meeting in Vietnam, a planned joint statement had to be scrapped because of these differences.
In a discussion draft of the proposed document, seen by Reuters, U.S. officials opposed a reference to "protectionist trends that could have strong impacts on the process of global economic recovery and economic integration."
But they wanted to include a reference to "unfair trade practices that result in unbalanced trade" and another calling for the removal of barriers that distort trade to ensure that it is "both free and fair".
In the end, there was no full joint statement on Sunday.
Instead, there was one statement from the Vietnamese chairman of the talks, Trade Minister Tran Tuan Anh, and a separate joint "Actions Statement".
The minister said there had been "some differences of opinion".
The statement from the chairman was based on the one the group had discussed earlier, but largely ignored changes proposed by the United States and instead included a reference to a "fight against all forms of protectionism".
"We would not agree to the chair's language, and we were successful in including language in the chair's statement to make clear that there was not consensus," a U.S. official said.
"We did agree to the ministers' actions statement and held numerous bilateral meetings that built goodwill among our trading partners."
The wrangling over the wording was similar to what has been seen at gatherings of Group of 20 and Group of Seven financial leaders, where statements were toned down to fit with the new U.S. agenda.
With voices rising, negotiators tried to reach agreement until 1 a.m. on Sunday before giving up and compromising on the two separate statements, officials with knowledge of the discussions said.
"The United States did not want to have the word 'protectionism' but the other 20 economies wanted to include that," said one official involved in the talks who did not want to be identified by name.
The official also said the United States wanted references to "multilateral" trading systems swapped for "international." Officials from several other countries echoed similar sticking points with the United States.
Lighthizer, a 69-year-old trade lawyer who has a reputation as a tough negotiator stretching back to the Reagan era, was only confirmed by the Senate as U.S. trade representative on May 11 and sworn in on May 15.
When asked about the disagreements over the language, Lighthizer said that U.S. steps to create free and fair trade were being confused with protectionism.
"We find that unfortunate," he told a news conference. "Our view is that we want free trade, we want fair trade, we want a system that leads to greater market efficiency throughout the world."
A priority for Lighthizer in Hanoi was one-on-one meetings with key partners, reflecting the shift under Trump's "America First" policy to bilateral deals. He held formal bilateral meetings with the Chinese, Canadian, Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese and Australian representatives.
Canadian Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told Reuters they had "a good first meeting".
One of Trump's first acts as president was to ditch the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The 11 remaining members, all APEC countries, agreed on Sunday to pursue it without the United States.
(Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi and My Pham; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)