Wilbur Ross: NAFTA is Trump's First Trade Priority

Wilbur Ross

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.

Ross also told the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that China was the "most protectionist" country among large economies.

Trump has leveled criticism at both 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."

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."

His comments early in the hearing did not mention Trump's threats to levy punitive tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the United States.

Ross also in his opening statement said that more telecommunications spectrum, a sector regulated by the Commerce Department, was needed by the private sector. He pledged to press government agencies that control it to release what they do not need.

"I am not anti-trade. I am pro-trade," Ross added. "But I am pro-sensible trade, not trade that is to the disadvantage of the American worker and to the American manufacturing community," Ross said in a prepared testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that was seen by Reuters.

Countries that violate U.S. standards for free trade should be "severely punished," he added, without elaborating.

"We should not put up with malicious trading activities, state-owned enterprises or subsidized production," he said, without naming any specific countries.

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].

Reuters also reported that companies run by Ross had shifted about 2,700 U.S. jobs to other countries since 2004, according to Labor Department data. (Reporting by Andy Sullivan and David Lawder; Writing by David Lawder; Editing by Clive McKeef)