US trade chief seeks new thinking on global challenges as Apec ministers meet

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai called for Apec ministers to work on reforms to the WTO in her opening remarks at the Apec meeting on Thursday. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

DETROIT - United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai on Thursday called on Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) trade ministers to “think creatively” for solutions to overcome a host of challenges from fragile supply chains to a worsening climate crisis to growing inequality.

Launching a two-day meeting of the ministers under a cloud of US-China tensions in Detroit, a city that has experienced the negative impact of “aggressive” trade liberalisation, she urged them to build on recent World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements to better serve workers and build trade more sustainably.

“We have an opportunity in Apec to forge a new path for our people and for our planet and to build our economies from the bottom up and the middle out, to deliver tangible results for our people,” Ms Tai said.

As they started, the Apec meetings were already overshadowed by a meeting between high-ranking Washington and Beijing officials for the first time in months in a bid to overcome a cascade of irritants.

Trade experts said subsequent talks on the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework initiative (IPEF) – featuring many of the same Apec ministers, but not China’s – would be a higher priority for US officials.

In her opening remarks, Ms Tai called for Apec ministers to work on reforms to the WTO.

She asked them to build on the multilateral momentum seen in 2022’s WTO ministerial meeting that produced the body’s first new agreements in years, including curbs on fishery subsidies and a partial intellectual property waiver on Covid-19 vaccines.

The US has long criticised the WTO for failing to curb China’s state-dominated economic policies.

China meetings

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo met Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao on Thursday. Their conversation in Washington is expected to be followed by a meeting with Ms Tai in Detroit on Friday.

The meetings come amid a string of setbacks for US and Chinese efforts to resume dialogue on economic and trade issues, starting with the downing of an alleged Chinese spy balloon in US coastal waters.

These irritants continued through last weekend, when Group of Seven leaders pledged to resist China’s “economic coercion”, and Beijing responded by declaring US memory chipmaker Micron Technology a national security risk, banning its sales to key domestic industries.

“It’s significant that China seems now willing to engage at Cabinet level,” said Mr Matthew Goodman, senior vice-president of economics at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and a former White House official who planned Apec, Group of 20 and other global meetings.

“The weight is on understanding each other’s positions even if they don’t produce tangible outcomes.”

Indo-Pacific talks

Mr Goodman downplayed the Apec conference as likely to produce a “lowest common denominator” statement, and said the IPEF talks in Detroit on Saturday were likely to produce a more significant result, with an agreement aimed at making supply chains more secure and resilient.

The IPEF talks, to be led by both Ms Tai and Ms Raimondo, are the Biden administration’s major Asian economic initiative, aimed in part to curb China’s influence in the region.

People briefed on the negotiations said that while an agreement on supply chains was likely in Detroit, more difficult discussions covering environmental and labour standards and non-tariff trade barriers, including digital trade rules and agriculture standards, would take longer to achieve. REUTERS

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