WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s pick to be the top U.S. trade envoy promised to work with America’s allies to combat China’s aggressive trade policies, indicating a break from the Trump administration’s go-it-alone approach.
In a confirmation hearing hearing Thursday before the Senate Finance Committee, Katherine Tai, Biden’s choice for U.S. trade representative, said she would “prioritize rebuilding our international alliances and partnerships, and re-engaging with international institutions″ to present Beijing with “a united front of U.S. allies.″
Tai dodged questions on two politically sensitive questions — whether the Biden administration would drop President Donald Trump's tariffs on imported steel and aluminum and whether it would revive former President Barack Obama's Asia-Pacific trade deal that was jettisoned by Trump.
Tai, considered a problem-solving pragmatist, is expected to be confirmed easily. In a rare sign of bipartisan agreement, the top Democrat (Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts) and Republican (Rep. Keven Brady of Texas) on the House Ways and Means Committee appeared before the Senate panel in support of Tai.
Fluent in Mandarin, Tai served several years as head of China enforcement at the trade representative’s office.
“I know firsthand how critically important it is that we have a strategic and coherent plan for holding China accountable to its promises and effectively competing with its model of state-directed economics,″ Tai said.
Trump slapped taxes on $360 billion in Chinese imports in a fight over Beijing’s sharp-elbowed efforts — alleged to include cybertheft — to promote its own technology companies and challenge the United States in fields such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
Biden and his team have not indicated — and Tai didn't say Thursday — whether they will keep Trump’s tariffs. But the new administration is unlikely to reverse course on Beijing.
U.S. legislators and policymakers across the political spectrum have taken an increasingly harder line on China, frustrated by its trade practices, crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, and relentless pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea, among other things.
“We must recommit to working relentlessly with others to promote and defend our shared values of freedom, democracy, truth, and opportunity in a just society,” Tai said.
Far from coordinating with U.S. allies on trade, Trump sparred with them instead, putting tariffs on imported steel and aluminum and threatening to target European cars, too.
Under questioning from senators, Tai wouldn't commit to dropping the tax on foreign metals. She did say that “tariffs are a legitimate tool in the trade tool box.''
Tai likewise ducked a question about whether the Biden administration would revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact with 11 Pacific Rim countries negotiated by Obama. The pact excluded and was partly meant to isolate China and cement U.S. ties with other Asian countries. Trump called the TPP a job killer and withdrew from it in his first week in office. The pact also faced considerable opposition in Biden's Democratic party.
Tai last served as the top trade staffer at the House Ways and Means Committee. She handled negotiations with the Trump administration over a revamped North American trade deal. Under pressure from congressional Democrats, Trump’s trade team agreed to strengthen the pact to make it easier for Mexican workers to form independent unions and demand better pay and benefits — decreasing the incentives for U.S. firms to move south of the border to take advantage of cheap and compliant labor.