WASHINGTON President Donald Trump does not intend to trade away U.S. jobs for China's help on North Korea, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Monday, adding that there were "constructive" talks with Beijing underway on trade issues.
In an interview with CNBC, Ross rowed back from Trump's comments in a CBS interview on Saturday that China's help on North Korea "trumps trade."
Asked if the need for China's help to contain threats from North Korea had made it more difficult to be tough with Beijing on trade issues, Ross said he did not think so.
"We've been having some very constructive discussions on trade with the Chinese in parallel" to discussions on North Korea, Ross told CNBC.
"I think what the president was trying to say is that we're trying to have an overall constructive relationship with China on a variety of topics, the most pressing of which, because it directly involves human lives, is the North Korea situation. I don't think he meant to indicate at all that he intends to trade away American jobs just for help on North Korea," Ross said.
Ross also reaffirmed that the administration intended to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, not withdraw from it.
He called NAFTA "an ancient treaty" that does nothing to address the digital economy, very little to address services, and has many "obsolete" provisions, such as those on rules of origin, allowing in too many components and products from outside the United States, Canada and Mexico.
He said, however, Mexico's July 2018 national elections could become an obstacle if negotiations were not completed well before then.
"The closer we get to the election, the more difficult it will be to get anything through," Ross said.
Asked about White House National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro's role in trade policy, Ross said he was "not a trade negotiator," but was working with the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Commerce Department as "a kind of triumvirate" on trade. Ross added that Navarro was spending a lot of time on "Buy American, Hire American" initiatives as part of his focus on U.S. trade deficits.
Trump created the role for Navarro after he served as the principal economic advisor to his 2016 election campaign.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrew Hay)