US will enforce trade rules aggressively: Commerce chief

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in his office in Washington, US.
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in his office in Washington, US. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • The Trump administration will enforce trade rules more aggressively than any previous government in its efforts to reduce the trade deficit, but is not seeking a dispute, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said.

Mr Ross also said he hopes to resolve this week delays in Congress that will allow the White House to give formal notification of the intent to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) with Canada and Mexico, which would start the 90-day clock before the talks could begin.

The administration has not yet decided whether to keep Nafta as a three-country deal "or to pursue two matching bilaterals", Mr Ross said on Tuesday in a speech to business leaders and diplomats at a Council of the Americas conference.

Nafta is "at best out of date and at worst did not accomplish some of its most important goals", Mr Ross said of the trade pact that President Donald Trump calls a disaster for the United States.

And "any agreement can be updated to reflect changes in all the various economies, and to correct unintended oversights" from the original deal, he said.

Mr Ross also said the administration wants to conclude the new Nafta as soon as possible and will push for a "far more aggressive meeting schedule then has been the norm".

He noted that his Mexican counterpart, Mr Luis Videgaray Caso, had said the new deal should be completed by the end of the year.

But Canada's Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has defended Nafta, saying it benefited all the partners and created North American production chains.

Trade with the US accounts for an estimated US$1.7 billion (S$2.4 billion) in goods and services crossing the border each day, and US$322 billion was exported from the US into Canada last year alone.

Mexico is Canada's third-most important trading partner, he said. But "we must work harder to make the case for trade" .

On the US administration's broader trade strategy - frequently described as an "America First" policy - Mr Ross said "the goal is to increase overall trade while reducing our trade deficit", which means reducing barriers to US exports. At the same time, the Trump White House will pursue "stricter enforcement than any previous administration", he said.

"There is little point to trade agreement that is not honoured."

But despite recent friction with Canada over dairy and softwood lumber, and with Mexico over sugar, "we do not seek a trade war with anyone, least of all with our fellow citizens of the Americas", Mr Ross said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline 'US will enforce trade rules aggressively: Commerce chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe