Ross Says China, Not U.S., Is the Real Trade Protectionist

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Bloomberg’s Tom Mackenzie discusses the Chinese and U.S. presence at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting.

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Any protectionist agenda in the U.S. pales in comparison to China’s, according to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Ross found himself defending the Trump administration’s America First mantra in a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday with a group of strong champions of globalization. “The Chinese for quite a little while have been superb at free-trade rhetoric and even more superb at highly protectionist behavior,” Ross said. “Every time the U.S. does anything to deal with a problem, we are called protectionist.”

Ross brushed off criticism that the U.S. is retreating from the world stage and leaving an opening for the world’s second-largest economy, China, to build influence. He said President Donald Trump just has a forceful leadership style that some people don’t like.

“We don’t intend to abrogate leadership, but leadership is different from being a sucker and being a patsy,” he said. “We would like to be the leader in making the world trade system more fair and more equitable to all participants.”

He challenged the other panelists -- including World Trade Organization Director-General Roberto Azevedo and Cargill Inc. Chief Executive Officer David MacLennan -- to quickly name a nation that’s less protectionist than the U.S. He got no responses. Ross then cited a study of more than 20 products that showed China had higher tariffs on all but two items on the list, and Europe all but four.

“Before we get into sticks and stones about free trade we ought to first talk about, is there really free trade or is it a unicorn in the garden,” said Ross.

Despite the tariffs Trump imposed this week on solar panels and washing machines, China is hoping for a “bumper year” for new trade deals, according to China’s Commerce Ministry. Earlier Wednesday, the Chinese president’s chief economic adviser, Liu He, told WEF delegates that the country will introduce more economic reforms than expected this year.

China doesn’t want to see an escalation of trade frictions with the U.S., and hopes to handle frictions in a "constructive" way, Gao Feng, the Ministry of Commerce spokesman said at a press conference on Thursday. "China’s door for dialogue and communication is always open," he said, adding that the nation will still take appropriate measures to counter unilateral, protectionist actions that go against WTO rules.

— With assistance by Miao Han, and James Mayger

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