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Sec. Gina Raimando on the role of commerce in supporting national security


"Planet Earth is big enough for both the U.S. and China to succeed." That is a quote from China's president, Xi Jinping, from when he sat down with President Biden last month. Xi added, one country's success is an opportunity for the other. Well, maybe, but the devil, as they say, is in the details, and my next guest is in charge of some of those details. Gina Raimondo is the U.S. commerce secretary. And I want to say welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GINA RAIMONDO: Thank you, Mary Louise. Great to be with you.

KELLY: So that rosy view I just quoted that's - at least the one that President Xi is choosing to express publicly, that the U.S.-China relationship should be a win-win, I want to start there because I've been trying to square that with how the American public seems to see it. There's a recent survey - this is from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs - that found nearly 60% of Americans consider China's development as a world power to be a critical threat. So, Secretary, what do you think? What do you - how do you see it?

RAIMONDO: Yeah. Look. I think that a growing China which plays by the rules is a good thing for China, a good thing for America and a good thing for the world. And President Biden is clearer on this than anyone. We want the Chinese people to have prosperity and a good economy. That being said, our job, No. 1, is to protect the American people, the American economy and, of course, our national security. So if China plays by the rules, trade could be a good thing.

KELLY: You just said twice, if China plays by the rules. I mean, that's - the devil is in the details.

RAIMONDO: Exactly. If they overly subsidize their companies, if they rely on forced labor, if they don't follow good labor practices and environmental rules, if they try to - which they do - try to steal our technology to advance their military, those are all bad things. And we have to do everything we can to prevent it.

KELLY: So let me ask about one piece of this, which you were leading. This is the implementation of the CHIPS Act, which funds U.S. manufacturing, American companies to try to offset the threat from China. You have said there can be no negotiation when it comes to matters of national security. And I believe you were speaking particularly about semiconductor chips used to manufacture weapons. You've said, "I have to use every tool in my toolbox" - I'm quoting - "to make sure those chips do not find their way into the hands of the Chinese military." What are the tools in your toolbox?

RAIMONDO: Well, we have an offensive strategy and a defensive strategy. On offense, we have the CHIPS Act, which is a $52 billion investment in American semiconductor manufacturing, which is, in my judgment, the most important thing we can do run faster than China, innovate more than China, keep our lead on semiconductors and artificial intelligence. So if I do my job right, a decade from now, there'll be 10 or more new leading edge semiconductor manufacturing companies in America employing American workers and engineers. At the same time, the other tools I have in the toolbox are to deny China our most sophisticated technology. So we have tools at commerce which allow me to say U.S. companies cannot sell certain semiconductor chips, certain semiconductor equipment, certain artificial intelligence technology to China. Because truthfully, why would we? They're going to use it to advance their military against us. I see it as pretty matter of fact, crystal clear and no room for negotiation.

KELLY: When you say that, when you use those words - there will be no negotiation when it comes to matters of national security - what kind of response do you get? You were at the table last month for that Xi-Biden summit I just mentioned.

RAIMONDO: Again, there's not much that you can say to that if we are clear and strong, and they wouldn't either. I mean, they're well within their sovereign rights to build up their military capacity. And we are well within our rights to do everything we can to obstruct that development. We're going to do business where we can, where it's in our interest. We're going to communicate. So we deescalate and not escalate. The world can't handle greater conflict between the U.S. and China. We're going to manage the conflict, and that means communication. But, you know, we're going to be tough because we have to be.

KELLY: Another item in your portfolio is AI, artificial intelligence, and how to implement the president's new executive order on the safety and security of AI, how to engage the private sector. When I have interviewed private sector leaders, CEOs at tech companies, they pretty much with unanimity say, look. We want rules. We want some guidance regulating. We are not sure how to do this. Are you?

RAIMONDO: (Laughter) We're learning, OK?

KELLY: Yeah.

RAIMONDO: We're learning. It would not be honest for me to say we know everything because it's new and evolving much faster than anybody realized.

KELLY: Do you get any resistance when you try to lay out new rules of the road for this from the private sector?

RAIMONDO: Yes, absolutely. I was obviously at APEC a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco. I convened a group of venture capitalists. I had a chance while I was out there to talk to startup companies and venture capitalists. There's definitely a group of people who still believe the misguided view of move fast and break things, and still believe America's special sauce is that we move faster and innovate faster, and rules and regulations slow that down. And my response is we can't move fast and break things with AI because it's too powerful. And so I have no problem pushing back on people who say leave us alone, there should be no rules, because I think that would be very disastrous.

KELLY: What tools - speaking of tools in your toolbox - do you have to enforce whatever you come to believe is the right path forward for AI?

RAIMONDO: So right now, we're doing the policy work to figure out how to enable innovation but also be safe and trustworthy and controlled. Ultimately, Congress will have to act to put really teeth into the regulations and have any kind of true enforcement mechanisms.

KELLY: So we have to have legislation?

RAIMONDO: I think so. You know, if you want to talk about a fine or any kind of penalties that have teeth in them, I mean, the administration has some regulatory capacity. And, you know, we are doing a lot at the Commerce Department which is working. You know, we've gotten pledges from all the big companies, a lot of VCs. It is working. But, like, ultimately, Congress has to take action - by the way, I think they will. I mean, I know Senator Schumer is doing a great job on this, convening people. We've briefed his senators. They're doing a great job in Congress. But at the end of the day, that's what we need.

KELLY: Before I let you go, Secretary, you and I are speaking today as people are remembering Sandra Day O'Connor, your fellow lawyer, the first female Supreme Court justice. And I was thinking you know a thing or two about being a woman blazing trails. You were the first female governor of Rhode Island. How will you remember her?

RAIMONDO: It's a huge loss. I never had the opportunity to meet her, though I wish I had. I, as a young law student, looked up to her so much for her grace, her strength, her dignity. People like her really did pave the way for people like me. And she was a woman of integrity, principle, independence and brilliant. So it's a great loss.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Safe travels, and good to talk with you.

RAIMONDO: All right. Have a good weekend. Thank you.

KELLY: And you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.