China Expert Named As US Trade Representative

Tai is regarded as a pragmatist who can’t be easily placed as either a protectionist or a free trader.

Pending confirmation by the US Senate, Katherine Tai, a Harvard Law School graduate fluent in Mandarin Chinese, will become the first Asian American and the first woman of color to hold the office of US Trade Representative (USTR). President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for the post, Tai is currently chief trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee. She is regarded as an expert on China trade policy and is expected to maintain Washington’s tough trade line with Beijing.

Tai’s immediate challenges will be implementation of the revised North American Free Trade Agreement—rebranded as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)—and negotiating new trading terms with China, including whether to maintain all or part of the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on $370 billion of Chinese imports.

While leading her party’s USMCA negotiations in 2019, Tai reportedly wrung key concessions from Republicans on matters like labor rights and environmental protections, including provisions empowering Mexican workers to form independent unions. Her role in the USMCA deliberations make her “uniquely qualified to lead implementation and enforcement efforts” as USTR, said 10 female House Democrats in a November letter to Biden urging her nomination.

Tai is regarded as a pragmatist who can’t be easily placed as either a protectionist or a free trader. As USTR, she is expected to forge more trade deals with US allies. She has suggested that these could include an agreement to buy personal protective equipment from one another, even if it costs more—as a way to wean Western economies from Chinese imports.

“I think there will be really robust political support for aggressive and bold steps with respect to how we compete with China,” Tai said during a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress in August. “But China’s not going away.”

When Biden introduced her as his nominee last month, Tai emphasized the extraordinary power of trade to “help communities lift themselves out of the current crisis.” Trade, she stated, “is not an end in itself. It is a means to create more hope and opportunity for people.”