U.S. Trade Chief Rejects Protectionism Charge

'The United States, by any measure, is the most open market and economy in the world,' Ron Kirk says.

Ron Kirk, U.S. Trade Representative, hit back at European accusations of protectionism over a massive tanker plane contract, saying the United States is the world's most open trading nation.

Rejecting the protectionist tag, he also took aim at the European Union for not pulling its weight in securing a global free trade deal.

Boeing is set to win a $35 billion contract to build 179 aerial refueling tanker planes for the U.S. air force after Northrop Grumman and its European partner EADS dropped out. Both European officials and EADS, which owns planemaker Airbus, claim the Pentagon altered bidding rules for the contract in order to favor Boeing's all-American offer over the European bid.

Kirk, talking to Agence France-Presse, saw nothing to apologize about. "We need to be very careful when we start throwing around, loosely because of one specific issue, words like protectionism," he said. "I'm having a hard time understanding the wisdom of those that believe that the United States can only demonstrate its fidelity to free trade by creating a world where U.S. businesses can't compete on U.S. contracts."

Rather than that, Kirk said, his "intuitive sense" was that the EU should also ask Northrop Grumman what its motives were for throwing in the towel.

"We're in a world where if we lose we run away and scream 'the process isn't fair, it's protectionism'.

"We've got to be better than that and understand the consequences of those kinds of words in a world in which more people believe that world trade has only benefitted the rich and powerful," he insisted.

Kirk, in Brussels to take part in a major strategy forum over the weekend, said the U.S. defense secretary was more disappointed than anyone when the European outfit pulled out of the bidding process. "It is not in the long-term interest of the United States or the European Union that you've only got two companies capable of bidding on these major contracts," he underlined.

Earlier this month, France's Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche said the suspicions that the Pentagon skewed bidding rules for the tanker jet contract in favor of a U.S. company would have serious consequences for EU-U.S. relations.

Last week, EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht accused President Barack Obama's administration of having a "protectionist" agenda, blaming Washington for holding up a global free-trade deal. "One of the problems is that we don't know exactly what the United States wants. They don't want to go forward for now, that much is clear," he said of the decade-old Doha round in World Trade Organization negotiations.

Kirk countered: "The United States, by any measure, is the most open market and economy in the world." He added that this was evidenced by the nation's $379 billion trade deficit -- "a pretty compelling response to those who argue we are protectionist."

He said he was very pleased with a WTO ruling this week, which he said concluded that Europe's Airbus had benefitted from illegal government subsidies.

He also said that the Doha talks are "closer to a more successful outcome" than a year ago when he assumed his current role. "The EU has not engaged in the push of that process and we are where we are singularly because of the push and the efforts of the United States," he said. "We would welcome nothing more than the European Union joining with us and playing a constructive role in helping us to negotiate with China, with India, with Brazil."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010

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