Biden picks longtime China critic Katherine Tai as top U.S. trade official
Thomas Franck, CNBC
President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday named Katherine Tai, a trade lawyer with a history of taking on China, as his incoming administration’s pick for the United States’ top trade representative.
If confirmed by the Senate, Tai would inherit a critical, Cabinet-level position tasked with enforcing America’s import rules and brokering trading terms with China and other nations.
Tai, who is Asian-American, would also be the first woman of color to serve as the USTR. She is fluent in Mandarin.
In choosing Tai, the senior trade lawyer on the House Ways and Means Committee, the Biden team likely signals an intent to return to a more multilateral trade approach to advance U.S. trade interests and confront growing economic competition from China.
The president-elect heralded Tai’s experience in a press release on Thursday as key to important insights while the incoming administration reviews the trade deal outgoing President Donald Trump brokered with Beijing.
“Her deep experience will allow the Biden-Harris administration to hit the ground running on trade, and harness the power of our trading relationships to help the U.S. dig out of the COVID-induced economic crisis and pursue the President-elect’s vision of a pro-American worker trade strategy,” the Biden transition team wrote.
Tai would succeed current trade czar Robert Lighthizer, whose achievements during the Trump administration include a more-forceful tact in negotiations with Beijing and the imposition of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tariffs on goods imported from China.
Though Tai may favor multilateral enforcement mechanisms more than Lighthizer, her leadership as USTR wouldn’t necessarily signal a change to the tougher stance toward China. She has said that China should be addressed forcefully and strategically.
“They both also have a long history of dealing with China’s unfair practices, the most pressing trade issue of our time,” according to former top White House trade negotiator Clete Willems. “Where Katherine’s approach is most likely to differ is on how she uses the WTO system and alliances to pressure China to change behavior.”
From 2007 to 2014, Tai successfully litigated Washington’s disputes against Beijing at the WTO, the global trade organization based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Lighthizer and his team, frustrated with what they viewed as slow-moving bureaucracy and China’s influence at the WTO and World Bank, often opted to work around the WTO and take a more direct approach through tariffs. The U.S. still has import duties on $370 billion of Chinese imports.
“As the former head of USTR’s China trade enforcement, Katherine has experience bringing and winning joint WTO disputes against China while partnering with countries like the EU and Japan and is likely to pursue a similar approach,” Willems, now a partner at Akin Gump, added in an email.
Willems also noted that Tai’s fluency in Mandarin would command respect at the negotiating table with China.
In August, Tai called for a different approach to China from the years-long tariff war waged by Lighthizer and said the use of import taxes are actually a defensive maneuver.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., said in a press release Wednesday evening that Tai would be a smart choice for USTR based on their time working together on the Ways and Means Committee.
“She is exactly the right kind of cooperative leader to help return rationality to our trade policy and restore the respect of our allies around the world,” Beyer said in the release.
The committee’s chairman, Massachusetts Democrat Richard Neal, offered similar sentiments in a release on Thursday.
“Her time with Ways and Means is filled with many accomplishments, but none greater than the key role she played behind the scenes in our successful work to improve the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and secure widespread support for its passage,” Neal said.
“As the United States seeks to repair strained relationships with our partners around the world and address increasingly perilous challenges from China, Katherine will be an honorable and effective representative for this nation, our people, and our interests,” he added.
Those comments are likely to reassure to Biden, who has suggested he would favor a return to a more multilateral, ally-based approach and a move away from President Donald Trump’s nationalist, “America First” approach.
Still, Biden said in a recent New York Times interview that he won’t immediately remove the tariffs on China and will instead weigh a variety of tactics when considering how best to compete with Beijing.
“I’m not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs. I’m not going to prejudice my options,” Biden told columnist Thomas Friedman in an interview earlier this month.
The president-elect has declined to say whether he would support joining specific trade agreements. One of President Donald Trump’s first acts in office was to remove the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was negotiated by the Obama administration with 11 other nations.
The TPP excluded China and was a cornerstone of Obama’s efforts to cement U.S. influence in Asia. China has since signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 14 other countries, a trade agreement that excludes the U.S. and covers about 30% of the world’s economy.
Biden has promised to be more detailed about which agreements he would support after his inauguration, but has repeatedly stressed the importance of working with allies to set global trade’s “rules of the road.”