Katherine Tai, US President Joe Biden’s pick as US Trade Representative. Photo: Handout

Katherine Tai, with her Asian appearance and family name, is being watched intently and with curiosity in China after Joe Biden nominated the 47-year-old trade lawyer to be his cabinet’s principal trade advisor and negotiator. 

As the incoming US Trade Representative, Tai will be on the front line of managing and potentially recalibrating US trade relations with China in the wake of outgoing President Donald Trump’s trade and tech wars launched against Beijing.

Tai’s modest family roots, migration to the US, graduation from top-flight universities and ascent through the Democratic Party ranks is a tell-tale American Dream story.  

After cutting her teeth at law firms in Washington, DC, the Yale and Harvard-trained Tai worked under Susan Schwab, then trade chief in the George W Bush Administration in 2007.

She was promoted to the trade office’s deputy general counsel specializing in China trade enforcement policies in the initial years of the Barack Obama administration. Before Biden’s nomination, Tai was the Democratic Party’s chief trade counsel on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, a position she has held since 2014.  

Upon her nomination, the committee’s chair Richard Neal praised Tai for her “exemplary tenure” as chief trade counsel for Ways and Means Democrats, hailing her role in completing the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement by securing bipartisan support for its passage.

“Elected officials across the political spectrum, labor leaders and the business community all trust Katherine, and for good reason. Her exceptional experience and expertise are rivaled only by her understated grit and sterling character,” said Neal, adding that she was absolutely the best choice for this critical position.

“As the US seeks to repair strained relationships with our partners around the world and address increasingly perilous challenges from China, Katherine will be an honorable and effective representative for this nation, our people, and our interests.” 

Katherine Tai speaks after Biden announced her nomination during a fresh round of nominations and appointments at a news conference at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., December 11, 2020. Image: Handout

Still, Biden’s pick of an American-Chinese to preside over trade policy, a major source of Washington-Beijing acrimony for years, has some Chinese netizens wondering if the appointment signals conciliation from the new US president at a time hopes are high for a reset in relations. 

Discussion about Tai’s family background and the languages she speaks are buzzing in China. Born to a Taiwanese immigrant family in Connecticut, Tai’s mother tongues are Mandarin and Shanghainese, as her parents were said to have lived in Shanghai before moving to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War and then further afield to the US.

Between 1996 and 1998, Tai reportedly paid a homecoming trip to Shanghai and then spent two years in Guangzhou, helping freshmen and sophomores at the city’s Sun Yat-sen University brush up on their English on a Yale University exchange program. 

While netizens are hopeful of a thaw, top policymakers in Beijing are believed to be less sanguine given Tai’s avowed commitment to ameliorate America’s worsening trade imbalance with China.

The deficit hit a record-high of more than US$181 billion in the first nine months of 2020, when the Trump administration’s tariffs failed to dampen the need for Chinese goods as Covid-19 snarled production and logistics in other manufacturing countries. 

Comparisons are already being made between Tai and Gary Locke, US ambassador to China between 2011 and 2014 and a former commerce secretary and governor of Washington.

Despite his record as the only Chinese-American to have served as a US state governor and top US envoy to China, Locke’s rising popularity among the Chinese masses once worried Beijing and his tenure in the country saw fresh disputes on human rights and the exile of a high-profile Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng. 

State papers like the Global Times have warned that Tai is likely poised to carve out her own tough-on-China policy when leading trade talks and brokering any new deals.  

“Don’t be fooled by their Chinese names and faces, and don’t get carried away by the US propaganda about their ‘inspiring’ life stories. They are all American politicians and just like their Caucasian colleagues, they see China as their arch-rival,” warned the Global Times. 

Liu Chenyu, an assistant professor with the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, said, “Tai is somehow thrust into her new position to lead more high-stakes talks with China as Biden weighs what to do with Trump’s legacy of a trade war and many tariffs.

“The new administration will have to navigate through seemingly conflicting needs to bring down deficits but also foster more trade with China to drive the US economy.”

Liu said the final say on any decision would rest with Biden as trade would just be part of his broader China policy. He said it would be naive to think Tai’s Chinese background would make her more receptive to Beijing’s demands. 

In this photo taken on in September 2019, containers from China and other Asian countries are unloaded at the Port of Los Angeles. Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP

Tai has been involved in the cut and thrust of American trade policy towards China since the Obama presidency. Then, her job was to give advice on US responses to trade complaints lodged by China at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

She once suggested to the US Congress’ Ways and Means Committee that more subsidies and economic incentives could help the US shed its dependence on Chinese goods.

“When American manufacturers see steady demand and are given more assurances by the government, they would shift production back home,” said Tai during a congressional hearing on trade. She said the US and its allies should explore more options to source protective gear against the coronavirus from among themselves.

Tai’s new position, meanwhile, has kindled hope among some observers in Taiwan that her family ties to the island may facilitate and expedite preliminary discussions for a free trade pact between Taiwan and the US. 

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has already congratulated Tai on her still-pending appointment and said the island’s top representative in Washington, Hsiao Bi-khim, having attended Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, would seek to meet Tai to discuss ways to cement trade ties.