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This Week In Trade

Tai could take the reins at USTR this week, with a full agenda waiting

Posted: March 08, 2021

The Senate could confirm U.S. Trade Representative nominee Katherine Tai as soon as this week, allowing the Biden administration more room to elaborate on its worker-focused trade strategy as pressing issues pile up on Tai’s waiting desk.

The Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved Tai’s nomination last week, setting up a vote in the full chamber that is expected to prompt very few “nays.” One of the few senators to express disappointment with Tai’s answers during her confirmation hearing, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), last week said he would vote for her anyway, and no senators have publicly opposed her.

Tai’s predecessor left her a slew of high-profile issues to deal with and Biden administration officials to date haven’t promised any major changes in policy. Tai and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have even indicated that one of the most controversial trade actions taken by the Trump administration isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Raimondo last week said the Trump administration’s Section 232 tariffs -- announced three years ago on Monday -- “have been effective.” And Tai, when asked about the tariffs during her confirmation hearing, said tariffs were a “legitimate tool in the trade toolbox.”

Tai also has repeatedly refused to commit to lifting Section 301 tariffs on China, instead telling senators in written responses to questions that she would “work with Congress to ensure that those tariffs are appropriately responsive to China’s practices and consider the impact on U.S. businesses, workers and consumers.”

The USTR nominee also promised to review the Section 301 exclusion process. Last week, USTR announced it would extend exclusions for products on medical-care and COVID response products until Sept. 30.

In addition to tariffs, Tai will also be tasked to negotiate a solution to the longstanding large civil aircraft disputes between the U.S. and Europe over subsidies provided to Boeing and Airbus. The U.S., the European Union and the United Kingdom have announced four-month pauses to retaliatory tariffs that have been imposed in the twin disputes. The tariff suspensions have not yet gone into effect. A four-month pause would give Tai until roughly mid-June to reach a deal with the EU and UK.

Tai also will have to begin preparing for the upcoming World Trade Organization ministerial, just scheduled for late 2021. One complication: The president has not yet announced any deputy USTR nominations. Career staff is representing the U.S. at meetings in Geneva until a deputy USTR to serve as WTO ambassador has been confirmed by the Senate.

Speaking of Geneva meetings, World Trade Organization members this week will once again debate a proposal to waive some intellectual property obligations in light of the corona virus pandemic. The waiver, which would allow countries to forgo a swath of commitments under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, is controversial, with support falling largely along the North-South divide.

Developed members, like the U.S. and European Union, so far have opposed the waiver but are facing increasing domestic pressure to lift their objections. In the U.S., several members of Congress -- including House Ways & Means trade subcommittee chair Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) -- have urged the Biden administration to allow the waiver to go through even as the pharmaceutical industry lobbies for the opposite. Barring a dramatic shift in approach from the U.S., EU and others, the waiver’s prospects are dim in the consensus-based organization.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, Communist Party officials this week are expected to wrap up parallel legislative summits at which the government will lay out its year-long agenda. Last week China unveiled its 14th five-year plan as well as its government work report, which previews Beijing’s 2021 goals. China reiterated its intent to “actively consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” in 2021 as well as open up more sectors of its economy and “promote the steady growth of imports and exports.” The five-year plan also laid out China’s plan to become technologically self-sufficient in seven high-tech sectors.


Georgetown University’s law school will host its 42nd annual international trade update conference this week. Former USTR Charlene Barshefsky will give a keynote lecture to kick off the conference on Tuesday.

The three-day conference will feature panel discussions exploring the Biden administration’s trade policy, U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement auto rules of origin, “particular market situations,” forced labor and other topics. Panelists range from administration officials to trade lawyers to industry analysts and even judges on the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. A full agenda can be found here.

More events of note:

  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Japan External Trade Organization will jointly host a Tuesday webinar on economic rulemaking in the Asia-Pacific region with JETRO Chairman and CEO Nobuhiko Sasaki, Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Huong Le Thu, and Waseda University professor Shujiro Urata.
  • The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security on Tuesday will hold a meeting of its Regulations and Procedures Technical Advisory Committee to discuss the implementation of the Export Administration Regulations.
  • German Ambassador to the U.S. Emily Haber and German Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Mass on Tuesday will take part in a Brookings Institution event to discuss the future of U.S.-German and trans-Atlantic relations. The officials will be joined by Brookings’ Fiona Hill, Constanze Stelzenmuller and Suzanne Maloney, as well as Brookings President John Allen.
  • The George Washington University's Center for Asian Studies on Tuesday will host National Bureau of Asian Research senior adviser Clara Gillispie to discuss with GWU’s June Park prospects for U.S.-Korea economic relations during the Biden administration.
  • Sabine Weyand, the head of the EU’s directorate-general for trade, on Wednesday will join former WTO Appellate Body members Thomas Graham and Jennifer Hillman along with Singapore Management University associate law professor Henry Gao and visiting Georgetown law professor Joost Pauwelyn for a discussion how the U.S. and EU can rethink the WTO.
  • Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Taranjit Singh Sandhu on Thursday will participate in a Hudson Institute webinar on U.S.-India relations.
  • Ignacio Garcia Bercero, a director at the EU’s directorate-general for trade, will participate in an American Society of International Law discussion on Friday about the EU’s role in the changing global order. He will be joined by John Swords, legal adviser and director of the NATO Office of Legal Affairs; Francesca Bignami, research professor of law at the George Washington University Law School; Jan Wouters, chair and professor of international law and international organizations at KU Leuven and Neha Jain, public international law professor and co-director of the European University Institute's Academy of European Law.
  • House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul (R-TX) on Friday will discuss the future of U.S.-China relations during a Hudson Institute event with Hudson fellows Nury Turkel and Eric Brown. -- Brett Fortnam (bfortnam@iwpnews.com)