White House sees China as trump card in trade debate

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 26, 2015 5:01 PM

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is confident lawmakers will warm up to a proposed Pacific free trade deal on the grounds that it is a chance for the United States to dictate the rules of Asian trade rather than China, a top official said on Thursday.

"It's a choice between us writing it and, frankly, China writing it, which I think is very compelling to many members of Congress," Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews said during a call to announce more support for rural exporters, such as by promoting more trade shows and workshops.

The White House is lobbying hard to win support for trade in Congress, particularly among Democrats worried about the impact of trade deals, such as the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), on U.S. jobs.

Andrews said the TPP deal was a chance to get an agreement with Mexico on new labor and environmental standards that were not obtained through the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But some Democrats are not convinced, with eight senators taking to the Senate floor later to raise concerns about trade.

"The proposed TPP trade deal should be judged by whether it creates good-paying American jobs, or destroys those jobs," said Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley. "Too often, trade deals with low-income nations have destroyed jobs."

Washington views China, the United States' second-biggest trading partner, with concern since the Asian giant has inked major trade agreements in the last year and also favors an Asia-Pacific free trade zone some see as a rival to the TPP.

China is not a party to the TPP talks but could join later.

President Barack Obama used China as the main argument in his State of the Union pitch on trade in January. Many lawmakers view China as an adversary and are alarmed by America's rising trade deficit with the Asian powerhouse.

"I think that is a very powerful, compelling and to-the-heart argument," Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly, a leader of the pro-trade New Democrats, said after Obama's speech.

Lawmakers are expected to soon introduce legislation to streamline the passage of trade deals through Congress, which Republicans, who have a majority in Congress, see as a pre-condition for supporting the nearly completed TPP.

Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler said movement in Congress was giving momentum to narrow the list of outstanding TPP issues.

"There are fewer issues but they are really, really tough, that's what we are increasingly focused on," she told a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on Thursday.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Additional reporting by Krista Hughes; Editing by Andrea Ricci and David Gregorio)