By Alister Bull and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama called for a level playing field for U.S. companies in China on Wednesday and pledged to push ahead with free trade deals with three other nations.
In an attempt to create jobs through export growth and reassure U.S. business leaders that he is committed to trade, Obama singled out China as a key market where American firms would like to sell.
"Our discussion with China has also addressed the important challenge of how to create a more level playing field for American companies seeking to expand their access to the growing Chinese market," Obama said.
General Electric Co CEO Jeffrey Immelt was quoted last week as saying the Chinese government was growing increasingly protectionist and his manufacturing conglomerate was eyeing better prospects elsewhere.
Obama again "welcomed China's decision to allow its currency to appreciate in response to market forces," which Washington says will help make U.S. exports more competitive.
The Obama administration is expected to decline to name China as a currency manipulator in a regular report to Congress that could be delivered any day.
Obama vowed to push ahead with trade agreements and seek approval for stalled deals with three countries, in an acceleration of his trade agenda to boost growth by doubling exports in 5 years.
"At a time when jobs are in short supply, building exports is an imperative. But this isn't just about where jobs are today. This is where American jobs will be tomorrow," Obama said as he delivered a progress report on the ambitious export target for 2015 that he announced in January.
Last month Obama laid out a timetable for a long-delayed free trade agreement with South Korea, and said on Wednesday he wanted to iron out remaining issues related to U.S. trade deals with Panama and Colombia.
"We're focused on submitting them as soon as possible for congressional consideration," he said, but gave no timeline.
U.S. growth has returned after a severe recession, but hopes for an enduring upturn -- and a lift to hiring that pulls back U.S. unemployment from levels near 10 percent -- will depend in large part on the strength of its sales abroad.
Obama has been criticized by some in the business community for not being a convincing free-trade advocate, as well as for overly optimistic forecasts on export growth that will require more commitment to open up trade than he has shown so far.
"We're looking for the president to have a robust trade agenda that will create jobs in our economy. The answer is not just talking about it, but acting on it," said Myron Brilliant at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.
But Obama must navigate a delicate domestic political path in an election year as he pushes free trade. Some members of his own Democratic Party, and its backers in organized labor, fear trade can hurt U.S. workers more than it helps American business unless fair play is enforced.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers estimates rising U.S. exports have added more than 1 percentage point to U.S. growth in the last nine months, making a more significant contribution to the recovery than domestic spending.
The administration says it has run 18 trade missions to lift U.S. sales overseas, doubled loans to support exports and fought for fair trade at the World Trade Organization.
"As a result of these policies, and a global economic rebound, exports in the first four months of 2010 grew almost 17 percent from the same period last year," the White House said in its progress report on Obama's export push.
"This puts the U.S. on track to reach the president's goal of doubling exports and supporting several million new jobs over five years." Obama announced the target in his State of the Union address in January.
Skeptics questioned whether this pace was sustainable.
"While the President will likely focus on current trade stats, the real question is where are we headed?" Republicans from the House of Representatives said in a statement.
"We hope that the President will follow through on his commitment to finish the South Korea agreement and that he will also challenge Democrats in Congress to begin work on Colombia and Panama," they said.
Doubt over the pace of Europe's recovery has focused U.S. attention on tapping into demand from China and other rising economic powers.
The White House says a South Korean trade deal, which needs approval from Congress, where it still faces opposition, would increase exports by an estimated $10 billion to $11 billion and support an estimated 70,000 jobs.
Obama has re-created a presidential Export Council made up of some of the country's top chief executives to foster ideas to boost sales overseas.
On Wednesday he named the remaining members of the 20-person council, following up on his March announcement of Boeing chief Jim McNerney to chair the council and Ursula Burns, head of Xerox Corporation, as vice chair.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce)