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Secretary Of Commerce On The Trade War With China Biden Has Inherited

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Gina Raimondo assumed her role as commerce secretary less than a month ago. She arrived at the Department of Commerce to find a long list of things needing her attention, not the least of which is the 2020 census, which has been delayed for months.

GINA RAIMONDO: The last administration definitely put politics over policy from the leadership. Thankfully, the career staff are extreme professionals, and they are going to make sure we have an accurate count.

CORNISH: Raimondo also inherits a trade war with China that includes tariffs on steel and aluminum. It was started by the Trump administration, but it's the Biden administration that now has to figure out whether to continue the fight or put an end to it.

RAIMONDO: What you've seen the end of is a haphazard approach to dealing with China and tariffs overall. You know, what we are doing now is, under the president's leadership, crafting a whole strategy for how we protect American workers, level the playing field for American businesses and, quite frankly, push back on China, whose behavior is threatening our security and prosperity and our values.

CORNISH: But the previous administration was doing that, no?

RAIMONDO: Well, I don't think so. No. What they were doing is the president would tweet something out that said, we're going to go ahead and do this tariff or that tariff. You know, he was all about tough talk on China. But if you actually look at the policies, they were all over the place. So it is true. The tariffs on steel and aluminum have absolutely been helping steel and aluminum manufacturers and have been effective in that regard.

CORNISH: But in terms of where you are now, you do have U.S. manufacturers, whether they be Whirlpool or Harley-Davidson, complaining about those tariffs - just staying on that subject - saying it's raising their costs. It's cutting into profits. I mean, are you going to be persuading them to stick with this plan?

RAIMONDO: So two things. They're right, by the way. I mean, I hear from a lot of, say, auto manufacturers or consuming businesses that it's made it more difficult. And one of the responsibilities I have in commerce - there's - not to get in the weeds, but there's an exclusion process which we will do a better job of working on to allow for exclusions, which will help some of our consuming businesses like autos and, as you said, Harley-Davidson.

But the real thing is the president has said to his team, step back. Let's have a strategy. Let's look at, holistically, all the tools of commerce and the USTR and the State Department. What's our strategy as it relates to China? How are we going to be as aggressive as we can? And so we're in the process of doing that now with an eye towards sticking up for American workers and businesses and leveling the playing field.

CORNISH: You know, with commerce, you're obviously heavily involved in trade. And I think with the America First doctrine of the last few years, multilateralism has fallen by the wayside. I mean, why should any country get in a trade agreement with the U.S. given what they've seen the last couple of years? Just because saying a new sheriff's in town, so to speak - right? - because what I think you would have learned is, wait four years.

RAIMONDO: Yeah, excellent, excellent question. And in this regard, you cannot sugarcoat the damage that President Trump caused in alienating some of our allies. But there is a new sheriff in town, as you say, and President Biden and his team have been crystal clear that we are in the business...

CORNISH: But TPP, for example - if countries had signed on to that with an administration that Biden was in, they could look at this now and say, well, what's the point? How long could this last?

RAIMONDO: Look. I think if you look historically, America has a long, strong history of working with our allies. And the president and secretary of state have been really clear with our allies around the world and Europe that we want to be good partners. And I - as secretary of commerce, I'm certainly carrying that message. In my first few weeks in office, I have spoken to my counterparts in Europe and Canada and Mexico. And at least in my experience thus far, they are wide open to the message of, it's a new day in America, and we want to renew these alliances.

CORNISH: But it sounds like you had to hit the phones, right? I mean, there were...

RAIMONDO: Yes, absolutely.

CORNISH: ...A number of phone calls that had to be made. Or am I reading into that?

RAIMONDO: No, no, absolutely. There's some fences to mend, and that's what we're doing.

CORNISH: Does that mean the U.S. is in any position to compete with China in terms of influence, which has made a lot of gains as the U.S. had pulled back?

RAIMONDO: Yes, we are going to compete with China. But in order to do that, we must work with our allies. And that is a fact, and the president's been clear about that. I think that our competition with China is a defining feature of this administration. Technology is at the heart of that. China's behavior threatens national security and economic security. And by the way, I think much of it is investing at home.

CORNISH: But looking from a different position, China has been focused on its Belt and Road Initiative, right?

RAIMONDO: Yeah.

CORNISH: It is investing in countries outside of China. It is leaning in its - through its influence through infrastructure abroad.

RAIMONDO: Yes, absolutely. I mean, listen. China is aggressive, willing to do whatever it takes, don't follow the rules. And that's another reason why we are taking it so seriously - to protect Americans, protect American workers and businesses - and why we need to work with our allies for exactly the reasons that you have said. We're very clear-eyed on the magnitude of the threat that China poses, and we're prepared.

CORNISH: All right. Secretary Raimondo, thank you so much for your time. Much appreciated.

RAIMONDO: Thank you, Audie. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.