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Katherine Tai Confirmed as USTR as China Tensions Simmer

Katherine Tai, who received the backing of the domestic textile and apparel industry and import groups, garnered unanimous confirmation on a vote of 98-0 in the Senate on Wednesday to be the next United States Trade Representative (USTR).

Tai takes office as the trade relationship with China, the U.S.’s biggest competitor in global trade, remains strained, with tariffs imposed by the former Trump administration still in place, causing difficulties for many importers.

Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee last month, Tai cited President Biden’s pledge to rebuild international alliances and partnerships and re-engage with international institutions. Tai said this extends to “addressing the challenges posed by China.”

“I previously served as America’s chief enforcer against China’s unfair trade practices,” Tai said. “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. I know the opportunities and limitations in our existing toolbox. And I know how important it is to build what the President has termed ‘a united front of U.S. allies.’”

Tai told the committee that “China is simultaneously a rival, a trade partner and an outsized player whose cooperation we’ll also need to address certain global challenges.”

“That means here at home, we must prioritize resilience and make the investments in our people and our infrastructure to harness our potential, boost our competitiveness and build a more inclusive prosperity,” she said. “We must also impart the values and rules that guide global commerce, and we must enforce those terms vigorously.”

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken, interviewed on Nippon TV on Wednesday, said the relationship with China is a “very complex one.”

“It has adversarial aspects; it has competitive aspects; it has cooperative aspects,” Blinken said. “But the common denominator in dealing with each of those is to make sure we’re approaching China from a position of strength, and that strength starts with our alliance [with Japan], with our solidarity, because it’s really a unique asset that we have and China doesn’t–the alliance, the cooperation among likeminded countries. And when we’re working together, when we’re acting together, when we’re making clear our concerns together, that carries a much heavier weight than any one of our countries acting alone. And that’s the spirit with which we’re going to go forward.”

Asked if there was any possibility the U.S. will boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics, Blinken said, “we’ve heard the many concerns around the world about the prospect of those Olympics given the actions that China has taken both at home in terms of its abuse of human rights when it comes to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, other minorities, or, of course, what’s happening in Hong Kong, the increasing tensions as a result of its actions…with regard to Taiwan.”

“We will continue to talk to other countries around the world to hear what they’re thinking and at the appropriate time we’ll decide what to do,” he said. “But for now, we’re just listening to the concerns we’ve heard expressed from many countries around the world.”

In a letter to the Senate committee, National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) president and CEO Kim Glas voiced strong support for Tai.

“Undoubtedly, this important office should be occupied by someone of unquestioned integrity who is not only an expert in international trade policy but an individual who also possesses a keen understanding of the unique challenges confronting domestic manufacturers and U.S. workers under the international trading system,” Glas wrote. “Katherine Tai has demonstrated all these important qualities over her distinguished career.”

Tai also stressed the importance of implementing and enforcing the renewed terms of U.S. trade relationships with Canada and Mexico during her testimony.

“The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is a uniquely bipartisan accomplishment that…represents an important step in reforming our approach to trade,” Tai said. “We must all continue to prioritize its implementation and success. We must continue to pursue trade policies that are ambitious in achieving robust, bipartisan support.”

Tai is a trade lawyer who previously served as the chief lawyer on trade to the chairman and Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee. Prior to this post, Tai served in the USTR’s Office of the General Counsel, first as associate general counsel from 2007 to 2011 and then as chief counsel for China trade enforcement with responsibility for the development and litigation of U.S. disputes against China at the World Trade Organization.