Obama’s new Cabinet picks have strong China links

Two newly nominated members of US President Barack Obama’s economic team have ties to international business in China, which could strengthen bilateral relations, experts say.

In nominating Penny Pritzker as US commerce secretary and Mike Froman as US trade representative, Obama said on Thursday that his priority was to jump-start the country’s trade agenda.

Pritzker is a Chicago billionaire who serves on the board of Hyatt Hotels Corp, which her family founded. She is a major donor to Obama’s Democratic Party. Froman, who will be Washington’s top trade negotiator, currently serves in the White House as deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs.

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“Both Froman and Pritzker are pragmatists who can drive a hard bargain but recognize the value of maintaining good working relationships with major business and economic partners,” said Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University professor and former China desk chief at the International Monetary Fund.

“Mike Froman’s engagement on China-related matters from his perch at the White House and Penny Pritzker’s guildwars 2 gold business background both portend well for a constructive economic engagement with China on economic and trade issues,” Prasad said.

Obama said Pritzker and Froman will be tasked with carrying out his administration’s initiative to increase US exports, mainly by negotiating two major trade-and-investment agreements – the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to which China has not been invited; and a pact with the European Union.

Business groups that have an interest in promoting trade with China welcomed the nominations, which are subject to confirmation by the US Senate.

“If confirmed, it will be important for Pritzker and Forman to work with American business to prioritize the real challenges facing the US-China commercial relationship: addressing market-access restrictions, lowering bilateral investment barriers, improving intellectual-property-rights protection and leveling the playing field for American companies that do business with China,” John Frisbie, president of the US-China Business Council, said in a statement.

“It is essential that the US government have leaders in place who understand the importance of trade, foreign direct investment, and strong commercial relations with China.”

The Business Council last week released data showing that China in 2012 remained the No 3 destination for US exports, behind Canada and Mexico, with almost $109 billion in goods purchased. Although the pace of China’s economic growth slowed last year, the value of US imports to the country increased 6.5 percent, or $6.6 billion, helping boost the American economy and create jobs, the USCBC said.

On Thursday, the Commerce Department reported that the US trade deficit narrowed 11 percent in March to $38.8 billion, including a $17.9 billion gap with China that was the lowest in three years. The reduction from February’s $43.6 billion was due to a decline in imports from several countries, particularly China, and could help boost the US economic recovery as US companies earn more from exports while consumers spend less on imported goods.

Pritzker’s success in the real estate, finance and hospitality industries has earned her credibility among fellow executives, and Obama on Thursday praised her as “one of our country’s most distinguished business leaders”.

Froman, known for skill in trade negotiations and knowledge of international commerce, was lauded by the president as “one of the world’s foremost experts on our global economy”.

Both are close associates of Obama and, if confirmed by the Senate, would be the first permanent heads of their respective agencies in months. John Bryson resigned as the Commerce Department’s chief last summer after suffering a seizure that led to two car crashes in California. Ron Kirk resigned as US trade representative in March.

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