Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's choice for commerce secretary, voiced sharp criticism of China's trade practices on Wednesday, telling senators he would seek new ways of combating them.
In his confirmation hearing, Ross also said that renegotiating the North American Free Trade agreement with Mexico and Canada would likely be the Trump administration's first priority, calling it a "very, very early topic."
Ross, who made his fortune turning around troubled companies in steel, auto parts, textiles and other industries, called China the "most protectionist" country among large economies, with high tariff and non-tariff barriers to imports.
The 79-year-old billionaire vowed to level the playing field for U.S. companies competing with Chinese imports and those trying to do business in China. Chinese officials, he said, "talk much more about free trade than they actually practice. We would like to levelize that playing field and bring the realities a bit closer to the rhetoric."
Ross said that state-owned enterprises in China were a particular problem that needed to be dealt with, charging that up to one-third have never made a profit and this has fueled overcapacity that has led to dumping of products such as steel and aluminum.
"They're being kept alive by state-owned banks. To me that looks and feels and tastes a lot like artificial subsidies," he said, adding that the Commerce Department will be "very scrupulous" in identifying unfair subsidies that require countervailing duties.
Ross did not specifically mention Trump's threats to levy punitive tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the United States but said countries that dump products below costs or fail to provide a fair trading field should be "severely punished."