Obama asks Congress for power to set trade pacts

Mr Obama warned in his annual State of the Union address that China is aiming to write its own trade rules for the Asian region, a move “that would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage”. -- PHOTO: AFP
Mr Obama warned in his annual State of the Union address that China is aiming to write its own trade rules for the Asian region, a move “that would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage”. -- PHOTO: AFP

President Barack Obama said the United States, not China, should write the rules on trade, urging Congress once again to give him the power to negotiate international trade agreements with partners in Asia and Europe.

In his State of the Union address, Mr Obama argued that trade protection authority (TPA) would enable him to "protect American workers with strong new trade deals" that "aren't just free, but fair" - a message that he has tried to send on more than one occasion.

The bid to get Congress to grant Mr Obama fast-track authority comes as the administration seeks to complete trade deals with the European Union under the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and with a group of 11 Asian and Latin American countries as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Mr Obama warned that American businesses need to sell their products overseas, but China is trying to "write the rules" on trade in the fast-growing Asian region.

China is not part of the TPP and is pushing for a trade pact with the wider Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc.

"That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field," Mr Obama said, while also admitting that past trade deals have not always lived up to their hype.

But he added: "Ninety-five per cent of the world's customers live outside our border, and we cannot close ourselves off from those opportunities."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said giving Mr Obama this fast-track authority is essential for any ambitious trade agreement to succeed.

Speaking to the US Chamber of Commerce, the Republican senator for Utah said he plans to "move carefully but quickly to introduce and mark up" a TPA bill.

While Democratic lawmakers still believe such trade deals could cost American jobs, getting the TPA passed would be a huge win for the Obama administration and the time might be ripe with a Republican Congress in place.

Singapore too has been a key supporter of the TPP, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighting during his visit to the US in June last year that it would be a key instrument "for the US to engage in the region, and to expand it's influence and its relevance to Asian countries”.