Jun 14, 2022 - Politics & Policy

U.S. Trade Rep. Katherine Tai says her identity helps "filter out the noise" in China negotiations

Photo of Katherine Tai in front of a mic
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai testifies during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on March 31, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Amid mounting U.S.-China tensions and spikes in anti-Asian hate, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai told Axios in an interview she is keenly aware of the heightened scrutiny she faces as a Chinese American leading the U.S.'s trade policy.

Why it matters: Besides Vice President Harris, Tai is the only Asian American to serve in a Cabinet-level position in the Biden administration. Her job requires her to navigate the U.S.'s complicated relationship with China even as Americans grow increasingly distrustful of people of Asian descent.

What she's saying: Tai, who co-chairs the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, said she is used to the extra attention on her work.

  • "It's something that I have to navigate that maybe previous USTRs, all of whom have had China as a very big part of the portfolio, have not had to navigate," she said. But having worked in trade policy for 15 to 20 years, "it's not anything that is new to me."
  • "So in some ways, as hard as these issues are for anyone and as hard as they are for someone like me with my background, it is in many ways the culmination of everything that I have studied and all the work that I have done."
  • Having her background also helps "filter out the noise," she said.
  • "When you're steeped in the policy and the substance, that gives you the ability to focus on and define what the problem is. The problem is not Chineseness. It is not Asianness."

Caught in the middle, Asian Americans are feeling the consequences, Tai added. "When that relationship is under tension, they are the communities that will feel it the most."

  • But they are also "some of the most important connectors that we have," she noted. "They get the challenge that we have, and they get the need for a rebalancing in this relationship that puts this relationship on more solid footing."

The big picture: Tai's role in the Biden administration hasn't been without controversy. Wall Street Journal recently reported that she continues to butt heads with other Cabinet members over whether to lift Trump-era China tariffs.

  • Tai, who has also clashed with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, is concerned that lifting them would relinquish leverage against the Chinese government, according to the Journal.

Worth noting: Tai rebuffed reports of internal strife but noted that tariffs are "a part of the toolbox" and that the Trade Representative's office must address both near-term crises and long-term goals.

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