US trade chief Tai says China talks got off to 'good start', affirms commitment to WTO

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai had earlier affirmed the Biden administration's commitment to the World Trade Organisation. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA (REUTERS) - United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Thursday (Oct 14) that her talks with China's Vice-Premier Liu He got off to a "good start" last week and that she planned to raise Beijing's non-compliance with Phase 1 trade deal in future discussions.

"It was a good start," she told journalists.

Asked what US President Joe Biden's administration would do about China failing to live up to its trade commitments, she said: "These are exactly the issues we need to take up in our conversations with China. There is a need for us to find a new way of engaging and competing with China."

Ms Tai had earlier affirmed the Biden administration's commitment to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), saying consensus was possible on several trade and health proposals at a meeting next month.

The 25-year-old global trade body is facing questions about its relevance, and director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is under pressure to deliver quick reforms and clinch its first multilateral trade deal in years at the Nov 30-Dec 3 meeting.

"The Biden-Harris Administration believes that trade - and the WTO - can and should be a force for good that encourages a race to the top and addresses global challenges as they arise," Ms Tai said in a written speech set to be delivered on Thursday in the WTO's host city of Geneva, Switzerland.

"We all recognise the importance of the WTO, and we all want it to succeed."

Many observers blame Washington for the paralysis of the WTO's top dispute settlement panel whose judge appointments were blocked by the administration of former president Donald Trump.

The Appellate Body has thus been unable to rule on a trade dispute since Dec 2019 and Mr Biden's trade officials have not since removed their opposition.

Ms Tai reiterated US criticism of the panel, saying WTO dispute settlement had become "synonymous with litigation" which she said was "prolonged, expensive and contentious".

She said Washington was open to views of other members on how to restructure the dispute settlement system to "provide confidence that the system is fair". She was more upbeat on WTO negotiations, saying that reform might succeed "if we create a more flexible WTO, change the way we approach problems collectively, improve transparency and inclusiveness, and restore the deliberative function of the organisation".

Several trade and health proposals should be able to achieve consensus in the next month and a half, Ms Tai said.

Among other deals, WTO members are aiming to land an agreement on fishing subsidies after 20 years of talks at the ministerial meeting.

Overall, Ms Tai called for a focus on "commonalities" and urgent priorities - such as combating the Covid-19 pandemic and preparing for the next one - to help make the trade body more relevant to workers and people around the world.

She said Washington was sharing options to respond to developing countries' requests for "flexibility" in the fisheries talks, but would insist any agreement addressed the prevalence of forced labour on fishing vessels.

The United States was also working on a draft ministerial decision that would improve the sharing of information, experiences, and lessons learned from Covid-19 responses to help border agencies respond in future crises.

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