By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As U.S. President Barack Obama heads to Asia this week, a top Democratic senator urged him to join trade talks with Vietnam, New Zealand and others as part of an emerging Pacific trading bloc.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said on Tuesday he was concerned Obama was not moving aggressively enough to forge trade ties in a region that offered the brightest hope for U.S. exporters.
Since Obama took office ten months ago, "the United States has lacked a comprehensive trade agenda and that absence is palpable," Baucus said.
"As President Obama heads to the APEC leaders meeting later this week, I urge him to revitalize our relationship with these economies. Speak out. I urge the president to announce that the United States will be a robust participant in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations," Baucus said.
Obama, who leaves on Thursday on an Asian tour that includes stops in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea, agreed in an interview with Reuters on Monday that the United States needed a more "robust" trade policy in the region.
"It is particularly important for us when it comes to Asia as a whole to recognize that in the absence of a more robust export strategy it is going to be hard for us to rebuild our manufacturing base and employment base in this country," he said.
In Singapore, Obama will attend the annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum with 20 other regional leaders.
"MUST TRADE OR FADE"
Baucus, in a speech at George Washington University, acknowledged the strong opposition of many Democrats to trade agreements, saying Washington needed to develop a new "blueprint" for trade that pays more attention to concerns raised by unions, environmentalists and other critics.
But he said the United States could not afford to stand still while it develops a new approach, since boosting exports is vital to future U.S. economic growth.
"We must trade or fade," Baucus said, invoking a line used by former President John F. Kennedy, who called for an expansion of U.S. exports in the early 1960s.
Many U.S. businesses fear the United States could be left out of fast-forming trading arrangements in East Asia if Obama does not push forward on a stalled South Korean trade deal and pursue other initiatives in the region.
Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, pledged U.S. participation in the Transpacific Partnership pact, which includes Singapore, Chile, New Zealand and Brunei.
The United States already has free trade agreements with Singapore and Chile but would have to reach deals with New Zealand and Brunei to become a full member of the pact.
Other Asia Pacific countries such as Vietnam and U.S. free trade partner Australia plan to join the pact, which supporters hope will be the basis for a wider regional agreement bridging the United States and key Asian nations.
Baucus reiterated his support for free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama left over from the Bush administration and urged Obama to move faster to resolve problems blocking approval of the pacts.
"I hope they come up next year. A lot of this is in the hands of the administration. I just keep urging the administration to be more aggressive, to figure out solutions. They say 'yeah, you're right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.'" Baucus told reporters after his speech.
Baucus, whose home state Montana is a major cattle producer, said South Korea must open its market to all cuts of U.S. beef from all ages of cattle and address concerns about access to its auto market before Congress will vote on that pact.
Panama must resolve concerns its tax haven status and Colombia must show it is serious about enforcing labor laws and reducing violence against labor leaders, Baucus said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by David Storey)