U.S. Commerce Secretary Slams Beijing for Protectionist Actions Under Free-Trade Rhetoric

By FeaturesDow Jones Newswires

A top Trump administration official accused Beijing of serving up protectionism under the guise of free trade, adding tension to the World Economic Forum just days after the U.S. imposed broad tariffs on solar cells and washing machines.

"The Chinese have for quite a little while been superb at free-trade rhetoric and even more superb at highly protectionist activities," U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told a trade panel Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland. Mr. Ross went on to blame both Beijing and the European Union for unfairly benefiting from higher tariffs and challenged the other two big economies to lower their import duties to U.S. levels.

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"We really are the least protectionist, and unfortunately we have the trade deficits to show for it," Mr. Ross said.

The Trump administration is seeking to push its own trade message at the annual Davos economic gathering, which is closely linked to globalization and multilateralism. Mr. Ross backed the administration's bilateral approach to negotiating trade agreements and defended President Donald Trump's exit from the unratified 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement a year earlier, saying there was "no political appetite" for the pact in either party.

The 11 remaining countries in the TPP said this week that they had reached a deal without the U.S., making Japan the biggest economy in the bloc, which also includes Mexico and Canada. The U.S. is working to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, in negotiations with Canada and Mexico in Montreal this week.

Mr. Ross earlier Wednesday criticized a speech by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that trumpeted the TPP Pacific pact, saying Mr. Trudeau appeared to be putting pressure on the U.S. during the Nafta talks.

The sharp words come two days before Mr. Trump is set to address the economic gathering. The Trump administration has signaled it will focus this year on targeting unfair trade practices by China. On Monday, the administration said it was imposing tariffs on imported solar cells and washing machines, and officials have begun other trade investigations under U.S. law that could end in trade barriers.

China called the tariffs an "overreaction" and pledged to "resolutely defend its legitimate interests."

A year ago in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to claim some of the mantle of global economic leadership in comments shortly after Mr. Trump's inauguration.

But this year, Mr. Ross blamed China for subsidizing overcapacity in steel. He said the U.S. isn't trying to ignite a trade war of the type that accompanied the Great Depression. U.S. lawmakers and many business groups are broadly in favor of taking action to encourage China to return to market-based reforms.

Officials and corporate executives at the forum expressed some concern about the latest U.S. actions and trade rhetoric.

"Let's not talk ourselves into a trade war," said Roberto Azevedo, director general of the World Trade Organization. "You don't start a trade war often deliberately."

Write to William Mauldin at william.mauldin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 24, 2018 12:29 ET (17:29 GMT)

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