China has threatened trade with some countries after feuds. They’re calling ‘the firm’ for help

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Business is good at “the firm.”

The eight-person team at the State Department is leading Washington’s efforts to ease the economic blowback for countries targeted by China.

It emerged in the scramble to help Lithuania during a spat with China over Taiwan two years ago. Today, “the firm” is helping growing numbers of nations cope with what diplomats call economic coercion from Beijing.

Countries “knock on the door, they call,” Undersecretary of State Jose Fernandez told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “We run a consulting firm that does not have to advertise for clients, as they come.”

Led by State Department senior adviser Melanie Hart, the group reviews vulnerabilities and develops responses for countries that are cut off or fear losing trade with global powerhouse China. Since the group’s launch with Lithuania, more than a dozen countries have approached the Biden administration for assistance, Fernandez said.

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And “the firm” kept at it. The State Department works as the first line of response and can coordinate with other U.S. agencies to reach “every tool that the U.S. government has,” according to a department official who asked not to be named to discuss details of the team.

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For example, the U.S. might try to work with partners to help a country quickly divert agricultural products to new markets, build more cold storage so products can reach farther markets or improve product quality to gain entry into more markets, the official said.

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