White House sees China as trump card in trade debate

By Reuters

Feb 27, 2015 07:51 AM EST

The Obama administration is confident lawmakers will warm up to a proposed Pacific free trade deal on the grounds it is a chance for the United States, rather than China, to dictate the rules of Asian trade, 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 on U.S. jobs.  

Andrews said the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, deal was a chance to get an agreement with Mexico on new labor and environmental standards that were not part of 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 past 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. On Thursday, Obama took the message outside of Washington in interviews with local television stations.

"If we don't do this, China is essentially going to be writing the rules in the largest market in the world," Obama told KMBC-TV of Kansas City, Missouri.

Many lawmakers view China as an adversary and are alarmed by America's rising trade deficit with the Asian powerhouse.

Lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation soon to streamline the passage of trade deals in Congress, which majority Republicans see as contingent to their support for the TPP.

Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler said Thursday that movement in Congress gave momentum to narrowing 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 said.

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