By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Described as calm, respectful, and creative, it’s no surprise that Katherine Tai’s appointment to the position of United States Trade Representative (USTR) on March 18, 2021 was approved 98-0 by a usually-polarized Senate. However, what makes her appointment celebratory is that Tai is the first Asian American woman to serve in this position.
Calling the timing of her appointment challenging would be an understatement. Tai must broker deals that had spiraled into tariff wars under the previous administration while the U.S. prepares to recover from the pandemic and the Biden-Harris government aims to Build Back Better. Tai’s job is to negotiate trade deals that open the U.S. economy to new opportunities, while safeguarding the interests of our workers.
On Aug. 5, 2021, Tai visited the Washington State University (WSU) Breadlab and met with labor leaders and union representatives to understand their needs that will inform the policies she crafts.
Tai’s parents were born in China, moved to Taiwan, and then immigrated to the U.S. She was born in Connecticut and grew up in Washington, D.C. Fluent in Mandarin, Tai graduated from Yale and taught English in Guangzhou before she began practicing law and joined the federal government.
As a second-generation immigrant growing up fully American, Tai thinks sometimes people like her, whose families came to America more recently, aren’t looked at and not necessarily expected to have a strong voice or to exercise leadership roles.
“Over time, what that breeds in some of us—and should breed in all of us—is the desire to overturn people’s expectations, to be perseverant, and to lead with your strengths, things that you are good at, your ideas and your voice,” she said.
Tai said her immigrant roots are a strength in her role.
“It means to never give up and make sure you are heard in whatever room you find yourself, make sure that you work as hard as you can to deliver on the things that you know that you can deliver.”
Visit to Washington state
Calling the Breadlab a special place and inspiring, Tai said, “I had an enlightening experience learning about their research, origins, vision for sustainability, nutrition, pragmatism, and innovations for the farmers who produce wheat.”
For Tai, the visit reinforced how special the U.S. economy is in terms of human capital, innovation, and a positive vision for how to make the world a better place.
“Just like everyone else in our economy, our farmers are looking for opportunities,” Tai said. “What I heard from the farmers that I met with is a desire for an overall economic and trade environment that they can operate in with confidence and that is very much the thrust of the Biden-Harris administration’s economic agenda—to create that environment for our stakeholders, including our farmers to prosper,” she said.
The Biden-Harris administration’s effort to Build Back Better is worker-centric, so Tai met with labor leaders and union representatives to talk and listen.
“We are working together with them to formulate our trade policies and make sure they work not just for our biggest economic stakeholders but also for the individual human beings who make up our economy,” Tai said.
“All my meetings in the state are focused on reconnecting with America, with our economic constituents, and to make sure that as we are putting our trade policies together, they really reflect the interests, desires, and needs of our economy.”
The USTR is currently reviewing its policy on China with businesses eagerly awaiting its release in the fall. Though she did not divulge details, Tai acknowledged that this issue was on everybody’s mind and the USTR has spent a lot of time and energy focused on it.
“I feel a serious sense of responsibility for bringing a strategic vision to our relationship with China, in particular our trade given that this is my competency,” Tai said.
While doing so, she is also ensuring the organization is working across the administration.
“It’s to ensure that our strategy with respect to China is coordinated and ultimately effective in placing the American economy—our farmers, workers, businessmen, and fishermen on the strongest possible competitive footing as we can in the global economy—where we will be competing with China in the years to come.”
Finding that balance is tough, but Tai’s response is to make U.S. policies very rational.
“We have to define the challenge we are facing with China effectively. It is a very serious challenge,” she said.
“We have to approach our problems and challenges and also the formulation of our solutions and strategies with coherence and sobriety because at the end of the day, we need to have very rational policies and a very clear vision in order to ensure that we can navigate our way to a really strong position while competing.”
With the modern economy and high volume of digital activity, many countries including the U.S. are grappling with how best to regulate this part of the economy and society.
“A lot of us are experiencing this through the pandemic, in particular, where the digital nature of our economy is fueling a lot of our ability to be active,” she said.
“This is an area that we are actively working on with our partners to establish rules and have conversations that we need to establish mutually beneficial relationships and to figure out the best ways to create rules for our economic activity,” Tai said.
“This space has implications for more than just our economic values but both our political and societal values, and it is an area that we have been engaging robustly with a lot of our trading partners in Europe and in Asia-Pacific,” she said. Tai feels the need for leadership and new thinking across the board in this area.
Trade will play an important role as the U.S. emerges from the public health and economic crisis that is both national and global in nature. Outlining her principle as she develops policies, Tai said, “One is that we stay very well coordinated with other parts of the economic policy apparatus as we develop our trade policies to ensure that we are aligned.”
As an example, she refers to President Biden’s $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that was approved by the Senate on Aug. 10.
“This is a tremendous opportunity not only for us as a nation but also for us in our position in the world. While our trade policies will be boosted by this initiative, our trade policies will need to support it as well.”
Tai emphasizes the opportunity that we have at this moment.
“We are coming out of a couple of really difficult years, both economically and in life experiences, and have an incredible opportunity to build back better and renew our society and the economic underpinnings of America in the way that has a potential to set us up for the years and decades to come.” ν
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.