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Katherine Tai: A Look at Biden’s Tough New Trade Representative


Boasting bipartisan support and a track record of effective work in US-China relations, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai shows unique promise for repairing trade relations that have bottomed at all time lows. Given her support in Washington and emphasis on cooperation over competition, Tai’s confirmation may mark a turning point in US foreign policy on China.

Among the controversy in the United States over the presidential transition, there is one official so far who has received overwhelming bipartisan support. Katherine Tai, currently an attorney who serves as the chief trade counsel for the United States House Committee on Ways and Means, has been named by President Joe Biden as his pick for the US Trade Representative. In this important Cabinet-level position, her duties include enforcing US import rules on trade partners as well as negotiating trade terms with China and other economically influential countries. 

Tai is expected to have a deeply involved role in setting the tone for Sino-American relations, particularly given her extensive background as a China expert and Mandarin speaker. From litigating disputes against China at the World Trade Organization (“WTO”) to living and teaching English in Guangzhou as a Yale-China Fellow, Tai has an appropriate background for the top representative in Sino-American trade relations. In continuation of the Trump administration, Tai is expected to hold a hard stance against unfair Chinese business practices while protecting American business interests in the relationship. However, Tai’s approach will differ from the previous administration’s in that she will lead Biden’s multilateral approach to China through international organizations like the WTO as channels to seek support on areas of potential conflict. As such, Tai is likely to play a pivotal role in collaborating with other nations to collectively bargain with China on issues of trade disputes.

The Bigger Picture 

Over the past few years, Sino-American relations have been on a downwards spiral due to political and economic disputes. The relationship between Beijing and Washington has been transitioning from an occasionally contentious relationship that settled on mutually beneficial collaboration to an increasingly antagonistic, mutually destructive set of interactions. This is mainly due to a variety of factors, from official personnel changes in both governments to shifts in relative power after recent economic crises.

Another explanation for deteriorating Sino-American relations is the growing battle for global economic and technological dominance. Both countries have been engaged in a technological “cold war,” with decoupling as a main method of attack for the Trump administration. The US government under Trump began prioritizing a US-centric approach to trade, which manifested in isolationist policies that focused on moving American companies’ supply chains back to the US. Combined with heightened security concerns from Chinese-manufactured tech like DJI drones and Huawei’s 5G network infrastructure, the US is attempting to shake off technological dependence on China, further expanding the divide between the two nations.

Another point of contention in the Sino-American relationship has been the US’ repeated critique of Chinese domestic affairs, some of which includes human rights violations in Xinjiang and Chinese undermining of Hong Kong autonomy. The Trump administration has imposed various punitive measures against Chinese government officials and companies in retaliation for actions in these two matters and more. For example, in response to the internment and forced labor of Uyghur Muslims, the United States recently banned cotton and tomato imports from the province. Continued escalation on both sides has ensued, leading to the ousting of foreign diplomats and closures of consulates on both sides.

If Tai and the Biden administration wish to distance themselves from the behavior of their predecessors, a pragmatic start would be to avoid the hostile rhetoric towards China that became synonymous with the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Leveraging her experience on trade with her Chinese cultural competencies, Tai will seek to negotiate a position that is favorable for American interests without further tit-for-tat escalations. Furthermore, Tai understands the benefits of international cooperation through established diplomatic channels, relying on arbitration enforcement through international institutions like the WTO as opposed to off-the-hip punitive economic measures. Through this, she will be able to advocate for the needs of America and her allies while also skirting direct conflict with China.

A Diplomat for All

Tai is expected by many experts to continue her tough agenda on Beijing in her new role as Trade Representative. As she will face a lot of pressure from both American and Chinese businesses early on, Tai’s hard stance as a negotiator will be crucial to her success. Her past negotiations have shown an ability to confront Beijing on issues like forced labor and intellectual property rights while still preserving a functioning trade relationship. For example, during negotiations over the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement that replaced NAFTA, Tai managed to push through key US proposals on environmental and labor standards while maintaining a successful trade relationship between the North American partners. Despite her hard stance on many issues plaguing the US-China relationship, Tai is likely to reverse the current trend of isolationist policies and instead advocate for increased economic cooperation between the two nations.

Through her years of work within the trade community, Tai has proven herself to be well-liked by all members of the House and Senate and has amassed bipartisan support from all over Washington, including labor and big business. In the words of Trump trade negotiator Cleve Williams, “Tai is not a pushover and has the capability of standing up not only against China but also against other agencies on trade issues.” Despite their differences, Mr. Williams also draws similarities between her profile and that of outgoing trade representative Lighthizer, noting that they have both made a name for themselves in arguing for a tough line on China. Meanwhile, her bipartisan support would be a boon for her ability to initiate meaningful trade reform efficiently with support across the aisle.

Additionally, the business community sees her as a steady hand who can navigate a balance between progressives and moderates competing for influence over the incoming Biden administration’s trade policies. In her capacity as chief counsel for the Ways and Means Committee, she balanced the competing demands of labor unions, environmental groups, corporate lobbyists, and the administration to settle on a deal that passed both houses of Congress by a wide margin. After these accomplishments, House Democrats wrote to President Biden in support of her nomination, noting that she was “uniquely qualified to lead implementation and enforcement efforts.” Looking forward, this could bode well for American interests in economies of fierce competition like China, as Tai’s history of ensuring equal representation for all interests would mean that US businesses would have a seat at the negotiating table.

Cooperation Over Competition

During her time in the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) General Counsel, Tai also worked extensively with the WTO wherein she successfully prosecuted several US cases on Chinese trade practices from 2007-2014. However, Tai’s approach to working with the WTO on China is likely to differ slightly from that of the Trump administration. The team under Trump’s Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, often opted to work around the WTO given their frustration with what they viewed as a slow-moving bureaucracy amid ingrained Chinese influence at the WTO and World Bank. In September 2020, for example, the WTO ruled that US imports levied against China since 2018 broke global trade rules. 

Tai, however, is likely to use her experience winning joint WTO disputes against China at the table as she places a greater emphasis on partnering with trade allies to pressure China. Given rising tensions between China and other Western trade partners, the opportunity to leverage collective grievances and bargain with China has expanded. For example, Australia’s personal trade war with China has continued to escalate over recent months. After Australia called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, China has levied import bans and duties across a slew of primary Aussie exports, such as coal, beef, barley, wine, and more. Additionally, 2020 saw Chinese trade conflicts with the EU and India. All in all, interested parties with a desire to address the Chinese trade regime have grown in number, and Tai should be uniquely qualified to capitalize on these concerns at the WTO-level.

In a rare public appearance in August 2020 at the Center for American Progress, Tai offered careful criticism of her predecessor Lighthizer’s approach to US-China trade diplomacy. She argued that the previous administration had been too focused on defensive measures like tariffs and other sanctions, and lacked the necessary offensive measures. Tai argued that offensive measures could complement punitive defensive policies by bolstering the American economy, which includes making its workers, industries, and allies stronger, faster, and better able to compete with competitors like China. Tai’s approach, which aligns with Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” strategy, focuses on revitalizing the domestic economy via various trade policies instead of fixating on competitor economies. Through this strategy, Tai and the Biden administration will attempt to advance America’s global competitiveness as opposed to containing other competitors’ economic progress.

A Turning Point for US Foreign Policy?

Looking forward, Katherine Tai’s role as trade representative is expected to carry the Sino-American relationship into a new phase. Leveraging her extensive background in foreign trade policy, she is expected to continue a hard line approach to US trade interests, especially in regards to China. Her experience at the WTO will come in handy as the Biden administration seeks to transition a unilateral Trump-era approach to China into a more multilateral campaign for global fair trade practices. Likewise, her tendency to prioritize cooperation over conflict will allow her to restore traditional collaborations with various countries and international organizations, while her reputation in Washington will prove invaluable when uniting politicians from both parties to greenlight her policies. All in all, Tai’s appointment could mark a turning point for US trade policy and Washington’s approach to global economic cooperation.

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