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Commerce Secretary Ross: It's not fair that the US absorbs the world's trade surplus

  • Ross blamed trade partners for taking a protectionist approach that disproportional impacts world trade
  • Trump also called on Monday for a more "reciprocal" trade during his visit to Japan
  • Trump complained that there's a trade imbalance with Japan that needs to change

Wilbur Ross, the U.S. secretary of commerce, told CNBC that it's unfair his country is being affected by trade protectionism.

"We don't think it's inherent in a global trading system that one country, namely the U.S., absorbs in its deficit the cumulative trade surplus of the entire rest of the world," he said Monday.

He blamed trade partners, such as China and Europe, for taking a protectionist approach that disproportional impacts world trade.

"The EU, China and Japan all talk about free trade and they all practice protectionism. Let me give you an example, automotive is the largest product category of our tariff deficit. Our tariff on autos is 2.5 percent; the EU's 10 percent and China is 25 percent and in some cases a bit more. That's not a level playing field," Ross told CNBC.

"It's the kind of thing we feel needs to be rethought," he said.

Trump also called on Monday for more "reciprocal" trade during his visit to Japan. He suggested that automakers are trying to build their cars in the U.S. rather than shipping them.

Trump complained that there's a trade imbalance between both nations that needs to change. The U.S. had a $69 billion trade deficit with Japan in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Last week, new data showed the U.S. trade deficit widened slightly more than expected in September, increasing 1.7 percent to $43.5 billion.

Trade issues have been somewhat sensitive since Trump took office. The president, who was elected on a protectionist platform, has stopped some negotiations for new free trade deals, including with Europe, dubbing such deals as a "disaster" to the U.S. economy.

Trump has used trade deficit figures — which calculate the difference between imported and exported goods — as a way to support his protectionist rhetoric.

However, some trade experts believe this isn't a good way to measure the benefits of trade because Trump is focused on manufactured goods and not services, and the former do not show the precise benefits of free trade deals.

"We have brought a very large number of trade cases against 35 countries around the world that are in effect right now. Enforcement is a very important part of the administration strategy. We think that even our friendly nations should live by the rules and if they don't, we will intend to enforce things against them," Ross told CNBC.

CNBC's Huileng Tan and Leslie Shaffer contributed to this report.