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Biden's Asia policy

Biden taps Mandarin-speaking Katherine Tai to helm China trade

Seasoned Capitol Hill staffer will be frontwoman if US negotiates return to TPP

Katherine Tai sees the need for U.S. trade policy to work in tandem with its own domestic industrial strategy to push back against China. (Nikkei montage/Source photos by Kyodo and AP)   © Nikkei montage/Source photos by Kyodo and AP

NEW YORK -- In choosing Katherine Tai, a Mandarin-speaker with years of China experience, as the next top U.S. trade official, President-elect Joe Biden is sending an unmistakable message about his priorities in trade in the post-Trump era.

In its Thursday announcement of Tai as its pick for U.S. Trade Representative, Biden's transition team highlighted Tai's past work in USTR as chief counsel for China trade enforcement and her experience litigating American disputes against Beijing at the World Trade Organization.

USTR, a previously lower-profile position, has drawn the spotlight in recent years thanks to President Donald Trump's trade war with China. Trump named U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to lead the trade negotiations with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He.

Tai is currently the Democratic chief trade counsel to the House Committee on Ways and Means. She served as the staff lead on the Trans-Pacific Partnership while working for Democrats on committee.

The experience allows her to hit the road running should Biden consider returning to the trade pact, now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.

When the Obama administration was negotiating the terms of the TPP, then-U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman served as the lead negotiator.

Current-U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer speaks at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on President Donald Trump's 2020 Trade Policy Agenda on Capitol Hill in June.   © Reuters

Tai was born in Connecticut to Taiwanese parents and educated at Yale University and Harvard Law School. Fluent in Mandarin, she taught English at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou as a Yale-China Fellow in the 1990s.

"She brings a needed expertise at a time when [Sino-American] bilateral trade tensions continue to grow," said Wendy Cutler, a former U.S. trade negotiator who has worked with Tai. Cutler, now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, described her former colleague as "a problem solver and a straight shooter."

While in Congress, Tai played a key role in pushing House Democrats' changes to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) centered on labor and environmental issues.

Despite her Democratic affiliation, Tai has publicly acknowledged that the Trump administration got some things right about trade with Beijing.

"On trade, I think that the number one takeaway that I have from the past three and a half years is that the Trump administration has not been 100% wrong on trade policies and push in terms of the substance that we've really had to work through and think through," Tai said on a panel held in August by the American Society of International Law.

With regard to the World Trade Organization, which Trump has threatened to withdraw the U.S. from amid protests from Democrats, "the substance of the concerns and issues that this administration has been raising in Geneva and here at home" are bipartisan, she said.

Yet for all its confrontational and provocative maneuvers, the Trump administration's trade policy against China is more defensive -- a reaction to Beijing's longtime practices such as forced technology transfer and state subsidies, Tai said at a separate August event at the Center for American Progress.

"I think the offense has got to be about [making] ourselves and our workers and our industries and our allies faster, nimbler, be able to jump higher, be able to compete stronger, and ultimately be able to defend this open democratic way of life that we have," she said. A Biden administration would bring a clearheaded assessment of the "nature of the Chinese challenge and the threat," she added.

Such an offensive-minded playbook could see a U.S. return to the free trade table, and possibly to the TPP, which Trump abandoned early in his presidency.

During the U.S. absence from international free trade negotiations, China has moved actively to fill the space; first by signing the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and signaling it will "consider favorably" joining the CPTPP.

Container boxes are seen at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in Shanghai. China has been actively participating in Asia free trade talks while the Trump administration stayed away.   © Reuters

What Washington will continue to compete against is a coordinated strategy on Beijing's part, part of its model of state capitalism. To rise up to that competition, Tai sees the need for U.S. trade policy to work in tandem with its own domestic industrial strategy.

Biden has made increasing American competitiveness one of the cornerstones of his campaign promise, underscoring his plan to fund research in areas including artificial intelligence, advanced materials and biotech.

If confirmed by the Senate, Tai will be the first Asian American to occupy the top trade post. One of her first challenges will be to navigate the legacy of Trump's tariffs and subsequent "phase one" trade agreement with Beijing, which has fallen behind its purchasing promises by third party estimates.

Biden has said he would not immediately act to remove Trump's tariffs or scrap the phase one trade deal.

"I'm not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs," the president-elect told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman earlier this month.

Before the election, Tai said that Trump's tariffs are a fact, and regardless of who wins, "the next couple years are going to have to deal with the landscape that has been created over this time."

In the same announcement, the president-elect has also tapped Susan Rice, a previous contender for secretary of state, as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

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