Rob Portman, the White House nominee for U.S. trade representative, vowed yesterday to adopt a "more aggressive approach" with China, the latest sign that the Bush administration is responding to pressure from Congress and business for action against Beijing's allegedly unfair trading practices.
Appearing at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Portman, a Republican congressman from Ohio, said that if confirmed, "I will order an immediate top-to-bottom review of all our trade issues with China." He added that he plans to travel to Asia soon "to deliver a strong message in person to the appropriate Chinese officials."
He cited the rampant piracy in China of American movies, music, software and other products as one problem that would be a major focus of his efforts.
Portman's comments came after the Treasury Department last week stepped up pressure on China to allow its currency, the yuan, to rise in value. Beijing's long-standing policy of keeping the yuan pegged to the U.S. dollar has been criticized as a ploy that gives Chinese manufacturers an advantage over producers from the United States and other countries.
This month, an interagency task force took a major step toward re-imposing caps on imports of Chinese clothing. That move was a response to complaints that China's export juggernaut is starting to dominate the worldwide apparel market since the system governing the global industry was changed on Jan. 1.
Those steps reflected mounting impatience on Capitol Hill and within some elements of the business community over the burgeoning U.S.-China trade gap, which soared to $162 billion last year, more than one-quarter of the total trade deficit. Some administration officials have dismissed the bilateral deficit as unimportant, arguing that the rapidly growing shipments of goods from China have mostly displaced imports from other Asian countries.
Portman hewed to the administration's position that the United States reaps many benefits from trade with China and that Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization has been in Washington's interest. But he said part of the reason for the Sino-U.S. trade imbalance is that "the Chinese do not always play by the rules," and he indicated that he intends to press China harder than did President Bush's first trade representative, Robert B. Zoellick, who is now deputy secretary of state.
"Bob Zoellick did a terrific job, and he was a strong negotiator," Portman said. "But I think it's important now and again to take a step back."
Most committee members gave an enthusiastic reception to Portman, who was chosen partly because of his reputation for maintaining good relations with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. One of his first challenges will be prodding Congress to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which would substantially eliminate trade barriers between the United States and five Central American nations and the Dominican Republic. Several panel members warned Portman yesterday that the pact faces serious opposition, and as he spoke, the House Ways and Means Committee was holding a contentious hearing on the accord on the other side of the Capitol.
Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he expects Portman to be confirmed Tuesday. That flew in the face of a procedural hold placed on the nomination by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who is trying to force a vote on legislation that would make it easier for Washington to impose anti-dumping duties on Chinese imports. Bayh said yesterday that although he "appreciates" Portman's statement on China, "American workers and businesses don't need more rhetoric -- they need results."
But Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the ranking minority member on the Finance panel, indicated that Democrats will try to persuade Bayh to allow Portman's confirmation. "There are a couple of wrinkles we've got to work out, but I think we'll work those out, and I think we should try to get him confirmed on Tuesday if we possibly can," Baucus said.