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Economy

Trump's commerce secretary pick is a familiar face in Asia

Billionaire Wilbur Ross has shown a new side since being tapped for the position

HONG KONG When U.S. President-elect Donald Trump tapped billionaire investor Wilbur Ross to serve as secretary of commerce, Asia's business world sat up. Ross, who has spent decades scouring the region for investment opportunities, is seen as the most Asia-savvy member of the upcoming Trump administration.

His history as a businessman, however, only goes so far in predicting his performance as an official.

EYE ON ASIA When Ross launched his namesake investment company, WL Ross & Co., in 2000, he put the words "New York, Seoul, Tokyo" at the top of his business cards, a clear statement that his investment ambitions encompassed Asia.

Ross earned the nickname "the king of bankruptcy" for buying failed companies at deep discounts then rehabilitating them and selling them for a tidy profit.

During the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Halla Group, then South Korea's 12th-largest conglomerate, went bankrupt. Ross, then senior managing director at Rothschild, completed a successful restructuring of Halla. A year later, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung awarded Ross a medal for helping the country during the crisis.

Also in 1997, the failure of Yamaichi Securities triggered the Japanese financial crisis. In 2000, Ross took over Osaka-based Kofuku Bank (now Kansai Urban Banking) and oversaw its restructuring.

In 2010, he became the chairman of Japan Society, a New York-based nonprofit set up by U.S. companies seeking to promote relations with their Japanese counterparts. More recently, Ross played a major role in arranging a sit-down talk between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in November, the president-elect's first meeting with a foreign leader.

Encouraged by his success in South Korea, Ross branched out into other Asian countries. He poured money into a textile factory outside of Shanghai in 2005 and invested in Indian budget carrier SpiceJet in 2008.

NOT SO FAST All of this may look encouraging for Asian businesses, but Ross has changed his tune in recent months.

In anticipation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, he had originally planned to promote investment in Vietnam.

"The U.S. is already the leading importer from Vietnam, 19.1% of its exports. China is not in the TPP," he said in a 2015 speech in New York. He noted that reduced duties under the TPP would greatly benefit Vietnamese exporters of clothes, shoes and other goods to the U.S., which are facing harsh competition from their Chinese counterparts.

Since his election, however, Trump has reiterated his intention to ditch the TPP, dashing Ross' long-held hopes for the Southeast Asian country.

Ironically, the incoming commerce secretary is now in a position of having to support the president-elect even at the expense of his own business interests. Trump campaigned on a promise of putting "America first," and Ross' job will not be to help Asian companies to increase their exports to the U.S., but to beef up exports by American manufacturers in order to create new jobs at home.

Ross seems willing to embrace his new role. In October, he co-authored an article in The Wall Street Journal. "Most of America's $766 billion annual trade deficit in goods is with a few countries, all of which need our markets far more than we need theirs," it read.

In the article, Ross voiced support for Trump, saying the leader of the country will have to conduct "smart, tough negotiations" with countries, mainly in Asia, with which the U.S. has trade deficits.

Ross is likely the Asian expert many perceive him to be, but to avoid disappointment, it is best not to assume that expertise equals friendliness.

Makoto Kajiwara is a columnist for the Nikkei Asian Review.

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