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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross praises China's 'gigantic' step on North Korea

  • China is committed to pressuring North Korea, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said following a visit to Beijing
  • Washington doesn't mind competing with Beijing on global trade, but is seeking a fair playing field, Ross said
  • The idea that the U.S. is isolating itself from the world is a fiction invented by the media, he continued

China is "quite serious about living up to the commitments they have made regarding North Korea," U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Wednesday.

The order for mainland lenders to stop doing business with Pyongyang "is a logical next step in the sanctions, and a very important one," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box."

"Chinese commercial banks had been a big route for facilitation of trade to North Korea so the fact that the PBOC has put out a taboo, that's a very big deal," the billionaire said, referring to China's central bank, or the People's Bank of China.

Last week, sources told Reuters that the PBOC had instructed domestic banks to implement United Nations sanctions against the rogue state. The development comes on the heels of Pyongyang's sixth nuclear test earlier this month and follows incessant demands from President Donald Trump for more Chinese action against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions on banks and individuals tied to the isolated nation as part of efforts to cut off financial support for Kim's weapons programs.

The PBOC move was "a gigantic step" and assuming that it's followed through, "that's a very good sign, it's very, very important pressure," said 79-year-old Ross, who made a fortune investing in distressed assets before joining the White House.

Trade with China

Washington doesn't mind competing with Beijing on global trade but "we just want the competition to be on a fair and level playing field," Ross said.

"That means not so much in the way of trade barriers, not so much in the way of protectionist activities, not so much in the way of impediments to companies operating there, not so much in the way of forced technology transfers — things of that sort."

Earlier this week, Ross said that President Xi Jinping's administration had to guarantee fair and reciprocal treatment for U.S. firms during a trip to Beijing that preceded Trump's own visit to the mainland.

The relationship between the world's two largest economies has been strained amid Washington's criticism of Chinese trade practices, with Ross labeling China the "most protectionist" country among large economies earlier this year.

"What we're seeking is an overall improvement in trade. And if you look at our trade balance, there's one geographic source of our imbalance and that's most importantly China," Ross said on Wednesday.

"There's one product source of our imbalance and that's mostly automobiles," he continued, adding that the car issue was not related to the mainland. "If you solve the geographic problem and you solve the product problem, you've pretty well solved our trade problem."

Why Asia is important

The region is "hugely important" to Washington, Ross stated.

Recent visits to Japan and South Korea by Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis are "partly to show quite visibly that we're not forsaking the region at all," Ross stated. "We've got all kinds of people out here."

The argument that the U.S. is disengaging with the rest of the world, reflected by decisions like exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is false, Ross said.

"It was never our intention to isolate ourselves, that's a fiction the media had invented."

"We didn't think TPP was an advantageous deal for the United States so we rejected the deal, not the geography ...Take for example NAFTA. We're certainly not rejecting Mexico and Canada, we're just saying we think the commercial arrangements with them need to be reformed."