U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter waded into economic policy Monday, urging Congress to grant the president negotiating authority for a proposed Asia-Pacific trade deal.
“Time is running out,” Carter told an audience at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
The U.S. and 11 other Asia-Pacific nations from Japan to Mexico are in the final stages of haggling over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While the talks, which U.S. officials once hoped to conclude by the end of 2013, drag on, China and other countries have pursued rival trade accords.
“That risks America’s access to these growing markets, and it risks regional instability,” said Carter, who added that: “Passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier.”
The remarks by the defense secretary, who is en route to Tokyo and Seoul for talks with U.S. allies, was an unusual but not unprecedented military foray into economic issues. Speaking to students and faculty, Carter said U.S. policies have facilitated Asia’s move from poverty to prosperity.
“All of this growth has been the result of a peaceful security environment,” he said. “We’ve helped create the stability that has allowed people, economies and countries throughout the Asia-Pacific to make incredible progress.”
He also said continued U.S. military superiority depends upon economic strength, which would be bolstered by expanded trade with the Asia-Pacific.
The proposed deal would lower trade barriers, while establishing labor and environmental standards. The U.S. initiative is expected to boost U.S. exports by $123.5 billion over the next decade, Carter said.
Companies such as Procter & Gamble Co., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc., covet a potential deal for the enhanced protection it would provide for intellectual property.
Broader trade ties with a region that will account for 60 percent of global middle-class consumption by 2030 are essential for the U.S., Carter said.
Across Asia, today’s 525 million middle-class consumers will grow to to a projected 3.2 billion over the next 15 years.
The trade deal is the centerpiece of the administration’s “rebalance” of U.S. foreign policy to stress relations with Asia after more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama is asking Congress to grant him “trade promotion authority,” which provides for an up-or-down vote on any deal without amendments. The request is controversial within the president’s own party, with many labor-backed Democrats thinking the measure would erode U.S. employment prospects.
China’s three-decade-long economic emergence has given the rebalance a sense of urgency. Carter brushed aside the notion “that China will displace America in the Asia-Pacific,” saying it will take “decades” for any country to match current U.S. military strength.
Thanks to an economy that has rebounded from the worst recession since the Great Depression, the U.S. is making costly investments in a new stealth bomber, anti-ship cruise missiles and futuristic electromagnetic rail guns, Carter said.
But the Pentagon chief said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” over China’s defense budget, cyberhacking and assertive behavior in the South China Sea.
Even as the U.S. since 2011 has sought to bolster ties with the fast-growing region, instability in the Middle East and Ukraine have consumed policy makers’ attention.
Carter insisted that “the rebalance is working,” citing the deployment to Asia of advanced weapons systems such as Virginia-class fast attack submarines, missile defenses and F-22 fighters and rotations of U.S. Marines from Okinawa, Japan, to the Japanese mainland, Guam and Australia.
The military also has increased its training and exercise tempo and is engaged in Japan, South Korea and Guam in four of its largest construction projects since the end of the Cold War.