The United States Trade Representative announced that negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership will begin this month, March 2010. Prompt conclusion of this agreement could be critical to the President’s export initiative, in which Mr. Obama intends to double U.S. Exports over the next five years. While the stimulus plan has had mixed results, increasing exports could help move our economy out of recession.

Increasing exports can have a dramatic effect opening up new markets for U.S. goods and services. My district, which includes the Port of New Orleans, has benefited greatly from previous free trade agreements. The North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”) generated $798.1 million in new exports through New Orleans in 2006 and $607.0 million in the first half of 2007.

The Trans Pacific Partnership will create trade relationships between the United States and seven countries: Singapore, Chile, New Zealand, Brunei, Australia, Peru, and Vietnam. When a bilateral free trade agreement with just one of the potential Trans Pacific Partners Australia, was implemented, Louisiana’s exports to that country increased by 23%.

Just as with previous free trade agreements, protectionists in Congress will try to kill this and other future trade agreements. I think it’s important to distinguish the tactics used by that group with the genuine concerns that many free trade Members have regarding liberalizing trade relations with countries that have poor human rights records like Vietnam.

I have been vocal about labor, human rights and religious association violations in Vietnam. Brunei and Peru have been criticized for similar offenses. Because we have pre-existing relationships and trade frameworks with some of these nations, we have a moral obligation to use these tools to encourage them to become more democratic.

Another potential sticking point in negotiations is ensuring that U.S. businesses have open and fair access to markets in the participating countries. The United States has been a marginal participant in existing frameworks and agreements in the Asia-Pacific region. In December, China and 10 other countries began creating an East Asia trade bloc. There are estimates that the impact of this bloc could cost this country at least $25 billion in annual exports if the United States does not gain substantial access to the market.

This is why it is critical that the USTR and the negotiators set clear benchmarks for complying with this agreement. They should address the labor and human rights concerns that have contributed to the delay of other agreements in addition to ensuring fair access for U.S. businesses. If these negotiations are carried out swiftly, the Trans Pacific Partnership will be an important first step in a creating a trade platform which creates jobs through trade, promotes U.S. businesses abroad, and sends a clear message to our new trade partners that we only do business with countries that respect basic democratic principles.

Representative Cao (R-La.) is a member of the House Republican Trade Working Group and Co-Founder of the Congressional Engagement Caucus.

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