U.S. Commerce Nominee Ross Says NAFTA is Trump’s First Trade Priority

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January 18, 2017

Wilbur Ross testifies before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be commerce secretary at Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) – Renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico will be the Trump administration’s first trade priority, U.S. Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross said on Wednesday at his confirmation hearing.

The 79-year-old billionaire investor also told the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that China was the “most protectionist” country among large economies.

He did not discuss Trump’s threats to levy punitive tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the United States but said countries that fail to provide a fair trading field should be “severely punished.”

Trump has criticized NAFTA and China’s trade practices, accusing both of causing millions of manufacturing job losses in the United States. He has pledged to renegotiate NAFTA to be more favorable to U.S. manufacturers or leave the 23-year-old trade pact.

“NAFTA is logically is the first thing for us to deal with,” Ross said. “We ought to solidify relationships in the best way we can in our territory before we go off to other jurisdictions.

“That should be, and hopefully will be if I’m confirmed, a very early topic in this administration.”

The Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper reported on Wednesday that Ross has informed Canadian officials that a formal request for negotiations will be sent within days of Trump’s inauguration on Friday, with rules of origin a priority.

Ross said that, working in concert with the U.S. Trade Representative and Trump’s new White House International Trade Council, he will seek to reduce China’s high tariff and non-tariff barriers to commerce.


He added that Chinese officials “talk much more about free trade than they actually practice. We would like levelize that playing field and bring the realities a bit closer to the rhetoric.”

The former steel magnate, who will give up his board seat at the world’s largest producer, ArcelorMittal, said China’s excess steel and aluminum capacity was a chronic problem that contributed to the dumping of goods below cost in the United States.

“Where we do need very careful attention to more tariff activity is the anti-dumping requirements that we should impose on the steel industry and the aluminum industry as well,” he said.

Ross said it was possible for the U.S. economy to grow faster than the Obama administration. It could achieve about 3 percent growth by adopting Trump’s proposals to roll back some business regulations, expand domestic energy production, reduce U.S. trade deficits and rebuild crumbling domestic infrastructure, he said.

Ross also said more wireless telecommunications spectrum, sales of which are managed by the Commerce Department, was needed by the private sector. He pledged to press government and military agencies that control it to release what they do not need.

“I am not anti-trade. I am pro-trade,” Ross said. “But I am pro-sensible trade, not trade that is to the disadvantage of the American worker and to the American manufacturing community.”

Ross disclosed on Tuesday that he would sell investments valued at up to about $300 million, including his stake in his private equity firm, in order to avoid conflicts of interest as commerce secretary, a position with responsibilities ranging from trade enforcement and economic data publication to telecommunications auctions and weather forecasting. {nL1N1F720V] (Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Clive McKeef and Bill Trott)

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