Telephonic Press Briefing with Ambassador Katherine Tai, United States Trade Representative

September 19, 2022

SIEM REAP – On September 18, 2022, United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai held a telephonic press briefing to discuss the Biden Administration's commitment to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its investments throughout the region.  This briefing was hosted by the Department of State's Asia Pacific Media Hub.

A transcript from the briefing is below and available online here.

MODERATOR:  Greetings from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Asia Pacific region and around the world.  Today we have the honor of hosting an on-the-record briefing with the United States Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai.  Ambassador Tai will discuss the Biden administration’s close partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the administration’s continued commitment to the region.  Ambassador Tai will take questions from participating journalists after her opening remarks.
I’ll now turn it over to Ambassador Tai for her opening remarks.  The floor is yours. 
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Thank you so much and hello from Cambodia.  It is really great to be here in Siem Reap for the annual ASEAN Economic Ministers-USTR Consultations.  As many of you know, last year’s consultations were held virtually, so it is especially wonderful to be here in person representing the United States and the Biden administration.
My trip to Cambodia comes as we are seeing unprecedented cooperation between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.  ASEAN represents the fourth-largest market in the world.  U.S. goods and services trade with ASEAN totaled nearly $442 billion in 2021, a 22 percent increase compared to the previous year.  In May of this year, President Biden hosted ASEAN leaders in Washington, D.C., for a special summit – a historic gathering to reaffirm our commitment to Southeast Asia and its people.  As the President noted during the summit, the United States’ relationship with ASEAN countries will hold significant importance not just today but over the next half century and beyond. 
And that is why our administration announced $150 million in initiatives to deepen U.S.-ASEAN relations, including through clean energy infrastructure investments, upskilling programs, private sector grants, and educational and cultural exchanges.  This investment builds on the $102 million investment the President announced at the annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit in October 2021 to enhance cooperation on health, climate science, trade facilitation, and more. 
And that brings us to today.  Later this afternoon, I will lead the U.S. delegation in our annual ASEAN Economic Ministers-USTR Consultations.  We will hear from ASEAN members as well as private sector representatives and stakeholders on how our trade agenda can support investments and economic growth throughout the region.  We have strengthened the open line of dialogue with the ASEAN since President Biden (inaudible).
This has only grown more important since the pandemic, and it is vital that we provide the resources and assistance to help our business owners compete and succeed.  Earlier this year we affirmed the importance of labor standards and environmental protections to all of our peoples and pledged to continue cooperating under the ASEAN-United States Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement.  And this spring we concluded the second U.S.-ASEAN Trade and Labor Dialogue in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Labor.  This dialogue brought together labor and trade officials to discuss the importance of upholding workers’ rights through trade agreements and how our agenda can support workforce development in the digital economy.  These accomplishments are part of the Biden administration’s effort to create a global race to the top in trade that upholds the rights of workers, protects the planet, and creates an increase in prosperity for all. 
I’m looking forward to more robust conversations with our ASEAN partners today and to continue this important strategic engagement in the months and years to come.  Thank you and I’m happy to take a few questions.
MODERATOR:  Thank you, Ambassador Tai.  We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.  Our first question, which was submitted in advance, goes to Wichit Chaitrong of JKN-CNBC in Bangkok, who asks: “How do U.S. policies affect supply chains in ASEAN?”
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Well, thank you for that question.  We have all been thinking a lot about supply chains these past couple years, haven’t we?  I think it is a fact that in a globalized economy, the policies that come out from each of our countries impact the supply chains that we have between us.  And that’s why the engagement that we are bringing through the ASEAN-U.S. Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement consultations, which we’ll be having later today, are so important. 
In our consultations we are focusing on enhancing our cooperation and our work together on trade facilitation, on trade and labor, trade and environment, and also digital trade.  These engagements provide us with really important opportunities to build back together supply chains that are more resilient and sustainable and are focused on fostering an increase in prosperity as we are all building our economies out of the disruptions that we’ve experienced so much over the past couple of years because of COVID and other factors. 
MODERATOR:  Our next question, which was submitted in advance, goes to Danh Le of VnExpress in Vietnam, who asks: “Can you update how the initiatives for infrastructure development in Southeast Asia, announced in May at the ASEAN-U.S. Special Summit, are being carried out?”
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Yes, I’d be happy to.  Thank you for the question.  Let me try to step back and explain the historic infrastructure investments that President Biden announced at the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in May were specifically around the three areas relating to infrastructure. 
First, that we will provide a $40 million investment to mobilize $2 billion in blended financing for clean energy infrastructure in Southeast Asia.  This will increase regional energy trade and accelerate the deployment of clean energy technologies. 
Second, the U.S. Department of Transportation will launch air, ground, and maritime transportation programs to promote sustainable and resilient infrastructure. 
And third, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency will launch new programs to catalyze over $13 billion in financing for clean energy projects to advance ASEAN’s net-zero goals.  They are also facilitating $1 billion in public and private financing for digital infrastructure across the region.
These programs and initiatives are being carried out across the federal government.  I’ll defer to the lead agencies for specific updates on those programs, but as you can see, we are using a whole-of-government approach to strengthen and deepen our bonds to ASEAN and the region.
MODERATOR:  Okay, our next question goes to Tran Hoang of Zing News in Vietnam.  Operator, please open the line. 
QUESTION:  I’m here.  Can you hear me?
MODERATOR:  Yes, we can. 
QUESTION:  Okay.  So I’m Hoang from Zing News, Vietnam, and I have a question: How the United States looks on Vietnam role when the U.S. is developing ties with Asian countries, and what the United States expects after strengthening the ties to comprehensive strategic partnership with the Asian nations?  Thank you. 
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Thank you.  Let me repeat the question because I had a little trouble hearing.  I think the first part of the question was how does the United States view Vietnam’s role in ASEAN, and I’m not sure I caught the second question.
QUESTION:  The second question is what the United States expects after strengthen the cooperation with ASEAN to comprehensive strategic partnership.
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Sorry, I – can I – Catherine? 
MODERATOR:  Okay, let me – let me (inaudible) and – yeah, sorry. 
QUESTION:  I have sent the question before to the email.
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Well, let me start --
MODERATOR:  Let me… I can go ahead. Oh, okay.  Thank you, Mr. Hoang.  I do see – I can read it out again.  “How the United States looks on Vietnam’s role when the U.S. is developing ties with ASEAN countries, and what does the U.S. expect after strengthening ties to the comprehensive strategic partnership with ASEAN?” 
AMBASSADOR TAI:  All right, thank you so much.  Apologies for the technical difficulties.  I have seen my Vietnamese counterparts in a number of different contexts over the course of the past year and a half, sometimes by video because of necessity and COVID, and occasionally in person, I think most recently in Los Angeles just last week.  And I had the pleasure of meeting the prime minister in May in Washington, D.C.  Our experience at – through our agency, the United States Trade Representative’s Office, has been extremely positive with Vietnam.  We view Vietnam as an extremely constructive partner clear in its views and really creative in its – in its attitudes in terms of building our relationship and playing a very important role within ASEAN.  ASEAN is an organization of 10 countries.  There is a tremendous diversity within ASEAN, and the strength of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is really an asset to U.S. engagement with ASEAN overall.  We really appreciate Vietnam’s partnership and leadership in our – in building our engagement. 
And I think that the second question is that really, our vision for engagement is to not only work to unlock the potential for economic growth and the development of people here in Southeast Asia through our engagement with ASEAN, but to unlock the ties and the bonds between the United States and with Asian – this Southeast Asian region.  And just to share with you, some of the engagements that I have in the United States with the diaspora communities of Americans who come from Southeast Asia demonstrates some of the strength of our people bonds and our cultural bonds that I am really looking forward to building through our economic engagement as well with ASEAN. 
MODERATOR:  Our next question goes to Li Xiang of in Hong Kong.  Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION:  Okay, thank you for giving me a chance to ask a question.  Firstly, there are two voices in the Biden administration on the issue of tariffs on China.  On the one hand, they believe that punitive tariffs on China need to be continued, but there are also most voices – more voices who believe that a trade war between China and the United States harms the interest of the United States and ends up with the American people paying the bill.  Could you confirm whether the United States will lift some tariffs on China in the near future?  And is the Americans’ Indo-Pacific economic strategy is a tool to contain and against China?  Thank you.
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Well, thank you for asking this important question, because while China is not in Southeast Asia, I know that China is an important part of the world economy really and also the economy in this region.  Let me just address part of your question where you referenced punitive actions against China and a trade war.  Let me be very, very clear: These actions that we have taken with respect to China and specifically the tariffs, which get a lot of attention, they are not punitive in nature.  The United States is not punishing China with tariffs, and I think that is a really important point to make because tariffs are merely a trade tool.  They can be used in lots of different ways.  In some contexts they are used as sanctions.  These are not sanctioning tariffs.  The tariffs that were put down in 2018 were really rebalancing tariffs; they are tariffs to try to level the playing field to overcome unfairness that we have seen and the impacts on the U.S. economy.  So that is a legal fact, but that is also a fact with respect to policy. 
In terms of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, specifically since I am the U.S. Trade Representative, let me address our Indo-Pacific economic engagement, whether it is through our consultations with the ASEAN countries here or in the EAS Economic Ministers’ Meeting that took place yesterday that I came here to participate in or through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework exercises that we are engaging in.  All of those engagements are about focusing on the economies here in the Indo-Pacific because these are important relationships, and I know that in speaking to my counterparts in Beijing that they do value these relationships too, and Beijing is also engaged economically and more broadly in this region.  And I think that that just indicates how important this region is and how focused these economies and the world are in helping to unlock the potential here.
MODERATOR:  We have time for one last question.  The last question goes to Lu Yihsuan from The Liberty Times in Taiwan.  Operator, please open the line.
QUESTION:  Hello, hello.  Can you hear me? 
MODERATOR:  Yes, we can. 
QUESTION:  It’s Emily Lu from The Liberty Times, Taipei.  I would like to ask, like, it has been one month since the United States and Taiwan announced the formal negotiation on the Initiative on 21st-Century Trade.  And I wanted to ask that could you share some progress of the negotiations?  And when will be the first round of negotiations?  Thank you.   
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Catherine?  Catherine, could I ask you for an assist?  I got the first part of the question again and it was a little tough for me to hear. 
MODERATOR:  I believe the question is about the status of the trade negotiations and, Emily, is it when we might have an agreement reached?  Is that correct? 
QUESTION:  Yes, when will be the first round? 
MODERATOR:  When will be the first round?
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Okay.  So as you can see, we are very busy in Washington, and especially at our agency.  This really is the era of engagement for us.  So we announced also the 21st-Century Initiative on trade with Taiwan earlier this year, and a couple weeks ago announced that negotiations are the next step. 
So I expect that negotiations will take place soon.  I don’t have a specific date for you.  And in terms of the specifics on how that conversation and engagement will develop, I can say that there’s a lot of motivation on both sides in our engagement throughout this region and throughout the world.  We find all of our partners are willing and motivated in large part because the global economic disruptions that we’ve all experienced and are still experiencing right now through the last couple years – whether it’s COVID, supply chain disruptions, or even the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on energy supplies, on food security – that I think that we all recognize that at this moment in time it is really an enormous opportunity and a necessity for our economies to come together to find ways to cooperate and to help each other into a robust economic recovery.  And that is what we’re doing and we are – we are working at it tirelessly because it is really important for our people and the people of the world.
QUESTION:  Thank you. 
MODERATOR:  I understand we have time for another question, so that will go to Brett Fortnam of Inside U.S. Trade.  Operator, please open the line. 
QUESTION:  Great.  Thanks so much for holding the call.  I have a question about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework since that is so crucial to the U.S.’s relationship with so many of its ASEAN partners.  With the – I’ve heard a lot about a potential early harvest for that deal, and I was wondering what USTR’s priorities are there if it is – it would consider just the digital aspect or if it’s looking for something more balanced that includes labor and environmental standards as well?  
AMBASSADOR TAI:  Well, Brett, it’s nice to hear your voice.  And if you’re on the East Coast and in Washington, thanks for calling in in the middle of the night.  I appreciate your question.  In terms of early harvest, I think what you mean is maybe an early deliverable that is less than the entire scope of what we announced.  I don’t know if you’re talking about just in the trade pillar or across the board, but I’ll interpret your question as focusing on the trade pillar, which we lead at USTR. 
Let me just say this: We just kicked off – (laughter) – our ministers’ meeting just last week in Los Angeles.  So I think it’s rather early to be talking about an early harvest.  We’re coming into this with a lot of ambition, and again, a lot of motivation.  So it really is our focus to make sure that we are engaging robustly across all components of the trade pillar because all of them are important.  And we will see – we will see just how fast we can get to our deliverables.  We are focused on speed, agility, and also on being practical. 
So I appreciate your question, although I just feel like it’s a little premature. 
MODERATOR:  All right.  That concludes today’s call.  I would like to thank Ambassador Tai for joining us today and thank you to all of our callers for participating.