Ross backs Trump's China criticism with 'most protectionist' dig

Ross's comments follow tweets Trump posted Thursday blaming China for US trade deficits and job losses.
Ross's comments follow tweets Trump posted Thursday blaming China for US trade deficits and job losses. PHOTO: REUTERS

(BLOOMBERG) - Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross criticised China as one of the most protectionist major country on Friday (March 31), less than a week before President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet for the first time in Florida.

"My view is that the United States is about the least protectionist of the major countries -and that China is one of the most protectionist," Ross said Friday during an interview on Bloomberg Television.

"There's an inherent clash between those two even though China uses a tremendous amount of free-trade rhetoric. We'd like the rhetoric and the behavior to become more congruent."

Ross's comments follow tweets Trump posted Thursday blaming China for US trade deficits and job losses. Trump is set to sign executive orders on Friday toughening enforcement of penalties on countries that engage in trade abuse. Trump and Xi have agreed to meet for an April 6-7 summit at the US president's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

"The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses," Trump wrote Thursday on Twitter. "American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives."

In the interview, Ross said China's effort to obtain market economy status was critical, and negotiations continue. He declined to say whether Trump's pledge to declare China a currency manipulator would come up during the meetings, saying that was the purview of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Chinese Optimistic Chinese officials expressed optimism about the summit despite Trump's predictions for difficulty.

Foreign ministry officials deflected questions about Trump's latest China criticism at a briefing in Beijing on Friday, with Vice Minister Zheng Zeguang calling it a "new starting point" for relations. The news conference took place just two hours after Trump's Twitter post.

The order Trump will sign Friday strengthens enforcement of existing countervailing duties and anti-dumping penalties against foreign products to address under-collection, said Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council. Anti-dumping penalties target exporters that sell goods for less than the cost of production, and countervailing duties are intended to compensate for foreign-government subsidies to producers.

Trump on Friday also will instruct the Commerce Department to complete a country-by-country, product-by-product assessment of the causes of U.S. trade deficits within 90 days. The study will cover faulty trade deals, cheating by foreign competitors, currency misalignments and "constraints" imposed by the World Trade Organization, Ross told reporters at a White House briefing.

In his BTV interview, Ross said the US already has begun its work on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta. He said Trump would like to add the word "fair" to the acronym, changing it to Naffta.

Ross said he's "anxious" to get negotiations started on the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, pointing out Mexico's 2018 presidential elections.

"The closer we get to those elections, the more difficult it will be for any government to make a deal," he said.