NEW YORK -- Former U.S. trade representatives expressed hopes Thursday that President-elect Joe Biden's choice for the job will steer a swift return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as Washington loses ground to a stronger China on setting the rules of the road for trade.
Katherine Tai's predecessors from both sides of the aisle cited a need to reengage with the region following President Donald Trump's abandonment of the TPP, speaking out at an online panel hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
The TPP, now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, is one of two recent trade megadeals without American participation. In November, 15 Asia-Pacific countries together accounting for about 30% of the world's gross domestic product signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership -- the largest global trading bloc to date.
"The U.S. has simply got to be in the game or, of course, we cede territory to China," said Charlene Barshefsky, who served as USTR for Democratic President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2001.
"What both agreements are really about is Asian integration," she said, adding that this is the growth region of the world.
"We make our Asian partners more dependent on trade with China" if the U.S. is absent, Barshefsky warned.
William Brock, who held the job in Republican Ronald Reagan's administration, said he would advise Tai: "Create as much of a sense of optimism and purpose as you possibly can, as quickly as you possibly can. That's one of the reasons TPP is important." Show Americans how they benefit from trade or else lose their support, he said.
Brock also said that "we don't spend near enough time talking about" Japan -- a U.S. ally -- and that the same holds for South Korea. "We've insulted a lot of them by just walking away from TPP," he said.
Tai is the Democratic chief trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, where she has also served as the staff lead on the TPP.
A fluent Mandarin speaker born to Taiwanese parents, she has also been the USTR's chief counsel for China trade enforcement, litigating American disputes against Beijing at the World Trade Organization. Tai taught English in Guangzhou, China, in the late 1990s.
Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who served as USTR under President George W. Bush, said the focus should be on signing a bilateral free trade agreement with Japan as a prelude to bigger things.
"Japan is the big economy ... in the TPP and the one that is the outlier," said Portman, who noted that the U.S. has trade agreements with many other TPP members.
"So it seems to me the focus ought to be on Japan and taking this initial step," he said.
After noting that Japan has "acquiesced on some agriculture issues I never thought that they would," Portman said that "the key issue to me is to get Japan into a more formal FTA-type arrangement and then be able to link effectively most of those countries in the region."
Vietnam is the other outlier country that the U.S. can pursue an FTA with, he said. "They have a strong interest in expanding their commercial ties with us," he explained.
Portman also said he is "glad that Katherine Tai is the likely nominee," which "will help in terms of moving a trade agenda forward vis-a-vis Congress because she, obviously, knows how we operate, understands the TPA well" -- a reference to Trade Promotion Authority, a key U.S. law pending renewal that could fast-track the negotiation of trade agreements.
The Trump administration's "America first" approach is set to be replaced by Biden's emphasis on multilateralism and restoring American leadership, but the trade landscape in Asia has shifted considerably during the incumbent's four years in office.
Mickey Kantor, who also served in the Clinton administration, said that "there's going to be pressure immediately ... to rejoin TPP" and that "it's going to come up earlier than people think."
Ronald Kirk, who was Democratic President Barack Obama's USTR from 2009 to 2013, said that "I don't think we have a choice but to reengage" when asked what the U.S. should do regarding the TPP.
And "given the sentiment in Congress as part of a strategy to preserve our integrity, move the supply chains over [from China], I think that is the window that we have to make TPP part of the response, part of a stronger strategy in terms of responding to China," he said.
The former U.S. trade negotiators voicing support for reentering the TPP hope that reengaging with other trading partners in Asia will help Washington push the Chinese leadership away from such trade practices as the use of state subsidies despite enjoying market economy status, as well as forced technology transfers.
Michael Froman -- who led TPP negotiations under Obama, whom Biden served as vice president -- said of China: "They're a sovereign country. And we should be somewhat introspective about our capacity to fundamentally change China's views about how it sees its own interests."
"But if it doesn't agree to change policies that are having a distortive effect on the global economy, then it should probably expect other countries to take action in terms of closing their markets to either exports or investment or scientific and technical collaboration, and the like," he said.