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Biden chooses long-time China critic Katherine Tai as the highest US commerce official

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Katherine Tai speaks during a House Ways and Means Committee meeting on the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) in 2019.

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President-elect Joe Biden named Katherine Tai, a trade attorney with a history of taking over China, to be his new administration for the United States' chief trade agent on Thursday.

If this were approved by the Senate, Tai would inherit a critical position at the cabinet level, charged with enforcing American import rules and negotiating terms of trade with China and other nations.

Tai, who is Asian-American, would also be the first black woman to act as a USTR. She is fluent in Mandarin.

With the election of Tai, the senior trade attorney on the House Ways and Means Committee, the Biden team is likely signaling an intention to revert to a multilateral trade approach in order to advance US trade interests and face growing economic competition from China.

The president-elect announced Tai's experience in a press release on Thursday as key to key insights as the new administration reviews outgoing President Donald Trump's Beijing-brokered trade deal.

"Your in-depth experience will enable the Biden-Harris administration to get a foothold in trade and harness the power of our trade relations to help the US emerge from the COVID-induced economic crisis and get the president-elect's vision from a professional pursue – American Labor Trade Strategy, "wrote the Biden transition team.

Tai would succeed current Trade Tsar Robert Lighthizer, whose achievements during the Trump administration include stepping up negotiations with Beijing and introducing hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs on goods imported from China.

China's Deputy Prime Minister Liu Er speaks to U.S. Sales Representative Robert Lighthizer during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on February 22, 2019.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

Though Tai prefers multilateral enforcement mechanisms more than Lighthizer, its leadership as a USTR would not necessarily signal a change in tougher stance on China. She said that China should be tackled vigorously and strategically.

"Both also have long histories of dealing with China's unfair practices, the most pressing trade problem of our time," said Clete Willems, former White House top trade negotiator. "Katherine's approach is most likely different in how she uses the WTO system and alliances to pressure China to change its behavior."

From 2007 to 2014, Tai successfully negotiated Washington's disputes against Beijing at the WTO, the global trade organization based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Lighthizer and his team, frustrated with what they saw as slow bureaucracy and China's influence on the WTO and the World Bank, often chose to bypass the WTO and take a more direct approach through tariffs. The US still has import tariffs on Chinese imports of $ 370 billion.

"As a former head of the USTR China Trade Enforcement, Katherine has experience leading and winning joint WTO disputes against China while working with countries like the EU and Japan and is likely to take a similar approach," Willems said now Partner at Akin Gump. added in an email.

Willems also noted that Tai's fluent mandarin would command respect at the negotiating table with China.

US President-elect Joe Biden will announce the members of his health team on December 8, 2020 at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

In August, Tai called for a different approach to China than Lighthizer's year-long tariff war, saying the use of import taxes was actually a defensive maneuver.

Rep Don Beyer, D-Va., Said in a press release on Wednesday night that Tai would be a smart choice for USTR as they work together on the Ways and Means Committee.

"She is exactly the right kind of cooperative leader to make our trade policy rational again and to restore the respect of our allies around the world," Beyer said in the press release.

Committee chairman, Massachusetts Democrat Richard Neal, made a similar statement on Thursday in a press release.

"Her time with Ways and Means has been full of success, but no greater than the key role she played behind the scenes in our successful work to improve the US-Mexico-Canada agreement and ensure broad support for its adoption," said Neal.

"As the United States seeks to repair tense relationships with our partners around the world and face the increasingly dangerous challenges China faces, Katherine will be an honorable and effective advocate for this nation, our people and our interests," he added .

These comments should reassure Biden, who has proposed a return to a multilateral, allied approach and a departure from President Donald Trump's nationalist "America First" approach.

Still, in a recent interview with the New York Times, Biden said that he will not immediately lift tariffs on China and instead will weigh up a variety of tactics when considering how best to compete with Beijing.

"I'm not going to take immediate steps, and neither will the tariffs. I will not compromise my options," Biden told columnist Thomas Friedman in an interview earlier this month.

The President-elect has refused to say whether he would support joining certain trade deals. One of President Donald Trump's first acts of office was to remove the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the Obama administration had negotiated with eleven other nations.

The TPP excluded China and was a cornerstone of Obama's efforts to cement US influence in Asia. China has since signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 14 other countries, a trade agreement that excludes the US and covers about 30% of the world economy.

Biden has promised to go into more detail about what agreements he would support after his inauguration, but has repeatedly stressed the importance of working with allies to establish the "rules of the road" of world trade.

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