WASHINGTON — In Zhongxian, China, more than 20 years ago, Rob Portman was thwarted in one of his first encounters with Chinese bureaucracy.
Portman, the future Bush administration trade chief, and a college roommate were trying to navigate the Yangtze River in a 50-pound kayak. The police chief said the boat was too small for the river, even after a display of their kayaking skills, and told them to take a ferry to the next town. They did, but subsequently snuck onto the river at night.
That persistence, along with a Midwestern work ethic and an ability to find common political ground, helped Portman, 49, ascend to President Bush’s cabinet in May as U.S. Trade Representative after six terms as a House member from Ohio, during which he became part of the GOP leadership.
Now, after using his deal-making skills to push the Central American Free Trade Agreement through the House by two votes, Portman is facing formidable challenges. He is overseeing stalled U.S. negotiations with China to regulate surging apparel imports, and trying to get back on track far-reaching and intricate World Trade Organization talks to reduce global tariffs.
The economic and political stakes are high for an administration that is struggling with a $617 billion trade deficit but continues to view free trade as a tool to promote business, alleviate global poverty and help protect U.S. borders.
“He’s shown he can work behind the scenes. His test is going to be, can he project vision and leadership on a global stage?” said Dan Griswold, director of the center for trade policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. “Rob Portman will need to show that he’s up to the task in hard negotiations with the Europeans and Japanese over farm subsidies and the Chinese over intellectual property.”
Congress is urging the administration to get tough with China for what many lawmakers see as its unfair trading practices, including an undervalued currency that makes U.S.-made goods less competitive. At least 31 U.S. textile plants have closed this year, and industry trade groups place much of the blame on China. Retailers counter that Chinese apparel and textile imports, which surged 53.4 percent to $20.6 billion for the year ending in August, boost their profits and slash prices for consumers.
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