On 18 March, 2021, Katherine Tai, the daughter of Chinese-born immigrants, became the US Trade Representative. She tweeted on that day that she was “ready to walk, chew gum and play chess at the same time!” and pinned it to the top of her Twitter feed. She had used the same phrase in her confirmation hearing the prior month. She likes playing chess, obviously.
And it seems the current US trade strategy vis-à-vis China is building alliances and consensuses. The next 12 months may see an end to “US v China Trade Wars” and instead see more “US-sponsored-trade-blocks v China Trade Wars”.
Lots of chess.
She posts on Twitter around 3 to 4 times daily and has celebrated her conversations with presidents, ambassadors, ministers, commissioners and officials from Germany, India, the UK, Japan, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Ireland, Sweden, Vietnam, Kenya, Australia, Republic of Korea, France, Turkey, the ECB, the WHO, the WTO and others.
Hot news on 5 May 2021 was that Tai “expects to meet her Chinese counterpart, Liu He, soon”. For some reason, media found this story was worthwhile reporting. On 26 May 2021 she had just such a meeting, where she discussed “the guiding principles” of the administration’s “worker-centered trade policy” and her “on-going review” of the US-China trade relationship, as well as “raising issues of concern”.
She didn’t tweet that. No nice pictures of her on a Zoom call with US and China flags in the background.
Back on 25 February 2021 in the committee hearing to consider her nomination, Tai had said the duty of US leadership extended to “addressing the challenges posed by China”. She said it was important for the US to; have a plan to hold China accountable to its promises, compete with its “model of state-directed economics” and build “a united front of US allies”. She said the US must “remember how to walk, chew gum and play chess at the same time” in reference to working with China as “simultaneously a rival, a trade partner, and an outsized player whose cooperation we’ll also need to address certain global challenges.”
During the hearing she cited China’s “track record on using unfair trade practices to acquire US technology”, “coercive and unfair trade practices”, “illicit practices” and its “non-market techno nationalism” and suggested she would ensure tariffs are “appropriately responsive” to China’s practices, which in due course came to be summarised as “the China challenge”.
She said that “a comprehensive strategy to confront the China challenge” will be formulated by the new administration and “engagement with the Asia-Pacific region a priority” and “it is a priority to work with our allies, including our European allies, to address the many challenges posed by China”
“Holding China accountable”, alongside the united front, addressing trade practices, and playing chess are strong Tai themes.
On an optimistic note, she did say that she hoped “China would be interested in active discussions with the US” on the development of the circular economy.
She said she would “address the myriad ways the Chinese government seeks to disadvantage US businesses and their workers including through censorship and market access restrictions”.
So let’s wait and see. A Chess game can take some time. But it’s started.