WASHINGTON — Speaking during his first trip to Asia since taking office, President Obama indicated over the weekend that the U.S. will seek to increase its engagement in trade in the region.

This story first appeared in the November 16, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Obama announced Saturday the U.S. will work with Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Peru, Brunei Darussalam, New Zealand and Chile to shape a broader regional agreement out of the existing Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade area.

Obama also indicated that the administration would engage South Korea in talks to work through outstanding issues keeping the stalled U.S.-Korea free trade agreement from moving forward, and pledged to continue working aggressively on the Doha Round of trade negotiations. “We’ve increased our exports to Asia at a healthy rate over the last decade, but not as much as other regions have — and we intend to change that,” Obama said. He delivered his remarks early in a weeklong trip that includes stopovers in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea.

The TPP was signed in 2006 and currently includes Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, New Zealand and Chile. In addition to the U.S., Australia, Peru and Vietnam also expressed interest in joining the agreement. Former President George W. Bush launched formal negotiations with the four current TPP countries in September 2008, seeking to have the U.S. join the existing trade pact. Obama put the U.S. involvement in the TPP under review after he took office in January.

U.S. textile groups voiced opposition to the regional trade pact, particularly Vietnam’s potential participation, during a hearing held by the office of the U.S. Trade Representative in March. However, importers were supportive, saying the accord would provide a platform for more trade agreements in Asia.

The U.S. already has separate trade agreements with Singapore, Chile, Australia and Peru.

House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) and Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.) said early Saturday morning in a joint statement that the TPP offers “both opportunities and challenges.” The two powerful House Democrats said the regional Asian-Pacific agreement could help break down trade barriers to U.S. exports but they warned it could also create new problems.

“It also presents the challenge within a new trade policy, of grappling with the inclusion of a country, Vietnam, transitioning from a nonmarket economy with government control of key sectors, restrictions in the Vietnamese labor market and absence of worker rights as documented in the most recent U.S. State Department Human Rights report,” the lawmakers said.

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