Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo says the Chinese government is blocking its airlines from purchasing tens of billions of dollars worth of U.S.-made airplanes in the latest U.S. complaint about China's economic policies.
"The Chinese government is holding that up," Raimondo told NPR. "They are not respecting intellectual property and stealing IP of American companies. They're putting up all kinds of different barriers for American companies to do business in China."
The comments came in an interview ahead of a speech on Tuesday outlining her economic agenda, which includes countering China's economic influence and addressing longstanding U.S. issues with the Chinese government's treatment of U.S. companies.
The U.S. also needs to counter China for human rights reasons, the commerce secretary said. The Chinese government is holding 1.5 million people from the ethnic minority Uyghur group in internment camps and has effectively created a high-tech surveillance state in areas where many Uyghurs live.
Though she said last week that she would work to improve U.S. business ties with China and would lead delegations of U.S. executives there, Raimondo told NPR the Biden administration would attempt to work more with European allies to come up with regulations and technology standards with countries that "support our democratic values."
A focus on semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S.
Raimondo is also pushing for more investment in U.S. manufacturing, which has fallen as companies moved jobs abroad starting decades ago. She wants more attention on shoring up supply chains that were shown to be vulnerable during the pandemic.
Her spotlight is on semiconductors specifically, which are today mostly made in Taiwan, South Korea, China and Japan. The U.S. makes 12%. Semiconductor chips are needed for smartphones and many other electronic devices to work.
"Once upon a time, America led the world in semiconductor manufacturing," Raimondo said. "In search of cheap labor, we have lost that lead. So we need to invest in America, incentivize companies to manufacture chips in America, have a trained workforce, shoring up domestic supply chains, domestic manufacturing here. That is what is critical. That is how we're going to compete globally."
Raimondo is urging the House to pass the Chips for America Act, which would direct $52 billion to help boost U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. The measure has already passed the Senate.
More generous family leave policies
In a wide-ranging interview with Morning Edition, Raimondo said more liberal child and dependent caregiver policies would make the U.S. more competitive economically.
"You cannot be competitive if women can't productively engage in the workforce because they don't have access to child care or care for their elderly loved ones," she said. "We can't compete globally if we're the only industrialized nation without paid family leave, which severely underpins our workers' productivity."
While it might be expected that business leaders would oppose any hint of raising corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy, Raimondo said she's heard from some who say they would be willing to pay higher taxes personally but want corporate taxes to be "competitive."
"I think there's broad recognition that some tax increases are necessary in order to pay for these investments," she said, in areas including child care infrastructure, job training, slowing climate change and increasing broadband access.
Increasing broadband access in cities and in rural areas
An issue such as broadband access has different solutions depending on where someone lives. While a higher percentage of rural residents lack broadband access — 19% of rural households compared to 14% of urban households — the majority of people without broadband live in urban areas.
In rural areas, companies haven't built the infrastructure because it's not economically viable, while in urban areas, some people can't afford to pay for internet access. "So we have to fix that," Raimondo says.
She also said the Biden administration would work to help areas that were previously supported by coal mining jobs. Coal jobs have collapsed in recent years mainly because of market forces, but the Biden administration is also pushing renewable energy.
Raimondo said the administration wants coal-mining areas to "move away from coal as fast as possible," but added: "You can't say, 'Coal's going away, you're going to lose all your jobs, good luck.' You have to be there to help people in those communities find jobs, bring new industries there."
Lilly Quiroz, Scott Saloway and Milton Guevara produced and edited the audio interview.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We've been talking with an official focused on U.S. business at home and abroad. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is the former governor of Rhode Island. Now, as part of President Biden's Cabinet, she is addressing long-term problems in a speech to business leaders today. One problem is U.S. trade with China. Last weekend, the United States agreed to drop an effort to extradite a Chinese business executive. Raimondo is not expecting further agreements to follow soon.
GINA RAIMONDO: I don't think that anything has changed meaningfully, which is to say China has to play by the rules.
INSKEEP: U.S. tariffs imposed by ex-President Trump are still in effect. The past administration did reach a modest agreement with China, which Raimondo says Beijing is not following.
RAIMONDO: Chinese airlines have purchases for tens of millions of dollars of Boeing airplanes, and the Chinese government is holding that up. They are not respecting intellectual property and stealing IP of American companies. They're putting up all kinds of different barriers for American companies to do business in China, and that's not right.
INSKEEP: Do you feel that you have an adequate source of cheap labor somewhere in the world? I know there's a partial answer to that. You can steer companies toward Vietnam. You can steer companies toward India. But is it really possible, if China never gives in on questions like intellectual property, that the United States could get what it needs from the world without as much from China?
RAIMONDO: Yes. Our No. 1 focus now has to be on a strong America. The semiconductor industry is a great example. Once upon a time, America led the world in semiconductor manufacturing. In search of cheap labor, we have lost that lead. So we need to invest in America, incentivize companies to manufacture chips in America, have a trained workforce, you know, shoring up domestic supply chains, domestic manufacturing here. That is what is critical. That is how we're going to compete globally.
INSKEEP: Do you connect some of the administration's domestic proposals to that goal? To give an example, does providing better access to child care or dependent care for workers in the United States make it possible for them to be more efficient and more productive and more competitive?
RAIMONDO: Absolutely. You cannot be competitive if women can't productively engage in the workforce because they don't have access to child care or care for their elderly loved ones. We can't compete globally if we're the only industrialized nation without paid family leave, which severely underpins our workers' productivity.
INSKEEP: Do you think that the business leaders that you're talking to care more about workers getting those kinds of benefits than they do about their corporate tax rate...
RAIMONDO: I do.
INSKEEP: ...Or, for that matter, their individual tax rate?
RAIMONDO: I do. I have talked to many CEOs who have said to me privately, raise my taxes, especially my personal taxes. Actually, I can't find a business leader who doesn't support investments in infrastructure, education, job training, broadband for all Americans, paid family leave. Obviously, they also want our tax code to be competitive. They don't want taxes to be raised to such a high level that they feel they're at a competitive disadvantage relative to companies in other countries. But I think there's broad recognition that some tax increases are necessary in order to pay for these investments.
INSKEEP: I've seen your speech. You're intending to at least mention inequality to some rather wealthy business leaders you are about to speak to. You've just said they don't mind raising their taxes, but they have benefited greatly from the system as it is. Do you think they are willing to make fundamental changes in that system?
RAIMONDO: I hope they are. I think, also, they will acknowledge they are struggling to find workers with the skills they need. If you talk to CEOs of tech companies, they will readily acknowledge that it's a huge problem that 30% of Americans who live in rural communities don't have broadband. It's our job to make the case to Americans - all of them, even the wealthiest - that these investments in child care, infrastructure, job training, broadband, climate change are necessary for our long-term competitiveness and productivity.
INSKEEP: I'm glad that you mentioned rural areas without broadband because we're talking about inequality here, and I'd like to know what your thoughts are about urban versus rural inequality. Do you see that as a severe problem, and how do you address it?
RAIMONDO: I do. I think the problems in urban America are different. They're mostly around affordability. So, for example, I was the governor of Rhode Island. It's an urban state. But if you live in a affordable housing apartment building in Rhode Island, however urban the area, you probably don't have access to broadband, either because it's too expensive or it doesn't go to your building. It stops at the block. So we have to fix that. If you live in a tribal land or rural area in - I don't know - the Midwest or the West, there just is no fiber. So we have real issues in America. What - coal-affected communities - you can't say coal's going away, you're going to lose all your jobs, good luck. You have to be there to help people in those communities find jobs, bring new industries there.
INSKEEP: How do you manage programs in communities where people may not have voted for this administration - may have voted against it overwhelmingly, in fact - and may not even want the particular kind of help that you're offering?
RAIMONDO: You know, I'm the commerce secretary for all of America. You just leave the politics behind. You know, West Virginia, for example, you know, isn't necessarily a place that was supportive of Democrats, but they need help to get back to work in this coal transition.
INSKEEP: But do you not encounter people who say, we don't actually want government help, we want more coal?
RAIMONDO: I have not, but I'm not going to deny that there are people like that. The reality is severe storms cost American businesses $100 billion last year. So I think climate change deniers are clearly wrong, and we just have to help with getting jobs in those communities and move away from coal as fast as possible.
INSKEEP: Madam Secretary, a pleasure.
RAIMONDO: Yeah, thank you.
INSKEEP: That's Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
(SOUNDBITE OF FUGAZI'S "SWEET AND LOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.