Biden to name Democrat trade lawyer Katherine Tai as US Trade Representative

US President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Katherine Tai to lead his trade agency.
US President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Katherine Tai to lead his trade agency.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden is set to nominate Democrat trade lawyer and China expert Katherine Tai as his trade czar, a signal that confronting China over its trade practices will continue to be a priority of his administration as it was under outgoing President Donald Trump’s.

Ms Tai, the chief trade counsel on the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee, speaks fluent Mandarin and has deep expertise and experience in international trade.

As chief counsel for China trade enforcement at the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) from 2011 to 2014, she was responsible for the development and litigation of America’s disputes against China at the World Trade Organisation. 

She also worked on the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) negotiated by the Trump administration, and was central to negotiating with the White House on behalf of Democrats for stronger labour and environmental protections.

“Ms Tai played a critical role in securing real improvements for workers in the USMCA agreement last year,” Democrat senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who called her the most qualified candidate for the post, wrote on Twitter.

Before joining the Office of the USTR in 2007, Ms Tai, a Connecticut native and Harvard and Yale graduate, worked in several law firms in Washington DC. 

She taught English in Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, China, from 1996 to 1998 under a Yale-China fellowship for Yale University graduates.

Ms Tai’s impending nomination was reported by major US news outlets on Wednesday (Dec 9) night, although no official announcement has been made yet. She is Mr Biden’s first Asian American Cabinet-level appointment. If confirmed by the Senate, the 45-year-old would be the first minority woman to serve as USTR. 

Ms Tai has received broad support from both moderates and liberals. On Wednesday, trade experts and lawmakers welcomed the news that she was Mr Biden’s pick.

“I’ve worked closely with Katherine Tai on trade issues and know she is exceptionally qualified to serve as our USTR,” said Democrat congresswoman Judy Chu of California, who sits on the House Ways and Means committee and was one of 10 female House Democrats who penned a letter to Mr Biden in support of Ms Tai last month.

“This nomination is also historic. As the first AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) and the first woman of colour to be USTR, Katherine is breaking barriers and clearing the way for others to follow,” Ms Chu added on Twitter.

Mr John Murphy, the senior vice president for international policy at the US Chamber of Commerce, congratulated Ms Tai and said: “Her deep policy background and her success building bridges in Congress will serve her well in the role.”

Positions on US-China trade

As USTR, Ms Tai will be part of the Biden administration’s decisions on whether to undo, continue, or adjust the Trump administration’s trade war tariffs against China.

In comments at a Centre for American Progress event earlier in the year, Ms Tai said that US trade policy regarding China had to be strategic and not just “defensive”.

“We have to think about the fact that yes, we are facing very stiff competition from China, but China is not going away. And so, I think that critically a good and progressive trade policy has to have both offensive and defensive elements,” she said at the event in September this year.

“I think the offense has got to be about what we are going to do to make ourselves and our workers and our industries and our allies...be able to compete stronger, and ultimately be able to defend this open democratic way of life that we have,” she added.

Ms Tai also said that the US had to be very attentive to and “recognise with very clear eyes” the nature of the China challenge, to the extent that China posed a risk and threat to the way that America competes internationally.

But she also suggested that a Biden administration would not see the Trump administration’s executive orders banning Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat as top priorities, when addressing the national security implications of America’s trade relationship with China.

“I really do think it is important for this China policy to be driven by policy and to be driven by US national interests rather than by politics,” she said.