Washington’s most tireless trade advocate

ASIA INTERVIEW

US Trade Representative Susan Schwab criss-crosses the globe on her mission to promote free trade.

SHE is perhaps the most intrepid traveller in the Bush administration, after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

US Trade Representative Susan Schwab has clocked more than 402,000km since taking up her job a year ago.

Put simply, that works out to taking a flight to Penang from Singapore and returning every day.

Criss-crossing the globe, Ms Schwab has been working tirelessly to negotiate free trade agreements and spearhead efforts to clinch a new world trade deal.

Her black polyester suitcase was packed and in full view in her office during an exclusive interview with The Straits Times last week. The 52-year-old trade specialist, who grew up in Africa, Europe and Asia, was getting ready to jet off to Ghana for a trade forum.

She spoke candidly about a wide range of issues related to trade. Ms Schwab disclosed that key lawmakers were willing to consider renewing the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) – fast-track powers which would allow President George W. Bush to negotiate trade deals without congressional supervision – if there was a breakthrough in the Doha Round.

TPA is granted annually by Congress, but the current Democrat-controlled body dealt a crushing blow to Mr Bush last month by not renewing it. He became the second American leader to lose TPA since it was introduced in 1974. The other was Mr Bill Clinton, who also lost it during his second term in office.

“Up to this point, they have looked at the last six years of negotiations and sort of shrugged and said, ‘Why do you think you need the TPA?’” said Ms Schwab, who has handled trade issues for the past 28 years.

She was upbeat about what many have described as the prevailing protectionist mood in Congress, arguing that it “is far more emotional than it is economic”.

The Trade Representative emphasised that Mr Bush had been bullish about cutting trade deals worldwide – 16 have been concluded {SEE CORRECTION ABOVE} thus far – and figures showed that the US economy stood to gain from them.

She noted that FTAs with South Korea and Singapore were important because they reinforced American presence in Asia in the face of growing competition from China.

China is not far from Ms Schwab’s mind. In her office, there is an example of old Chinese calligraphy hung on the wall against a backdrop of several pictures of her with Mr Bush. The script read “the moon is always brighter over my hometown”.

She bought it in Beijing when she was working for Motorola in the 1990s, as China was beginning to show signs of being an emerging power.

The trade specialist remained optimistic about a global trade deal, believing that talks could go into a “hibernation” phase like the earlier Uruguay Round which took eight years to conclude. Ultimately, however, – whether it is for Mr Bush or the next president – Congress will need to provide fast-track powers.

Their absence made it harder to negotiate deals but Ms Schwab insisted that she was no lame duck without TPA.

“I would not say it has hindered my role. I have got so much going on right now…I am going to clock more miles.”

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