By Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Advocates of greater U.S. foreign trade praised a U.S. move to connect with a Pacific regional bloc, saying it marks a welcome step forward by the Obama administration.
President Barack Obama on Saturday in Tokyo said the United States would enter negotiations with the Transpacific partnership, a regional group aimed at smoothing trade flows between nations on the Pacific rim.
The move is a cautious first step toward a more expansive trade policy. The White House has delayed pushing for free trade agreements to avoid alienating political allies while it pursues healthcare reform and other domestic priorities.
Pro-trade advocates said the U.S. willingness to open talks with the bloc ensures it will not be left behind as other nations cut trade barriers for one another.
"Rather than being on the sidelines as many Asian nations conclude their own trade and investment agreements, the United States will be an equal and active participant in the most important new trade liberalization effort in the region," said Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade business group.
A key lawmaker also praised the move, saying it would help create jobs in the United States and maintain links to an economically dynamic region.
"The Asia-Pacific region will continue to grow and economically integrate in the coming years," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus.
The United States hopes boosting exports will accelerate its recovery from deep recession. But some exporters have criticized Obama for failing to actively seek deals with trading partners that would open doors to U.S. manufacturers.
High U.S. unemployment puts the administration in a tough spot on trade agreements. Labor unions and others say free trade pacts have led to the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
With a mid-term election looming in November 2010, Obama is under pressure to lower the 10.2 percent unemployment rate from its current 26-year-high.
The Transpacific Partnership would build on existing deals with Chile, Australia, Singapore and Peru by adding new pacts with other countries such as New Zealand, Brunei and Vietnam.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)