WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. John McCain called for the Obama administration to ramp up its free trade agenda in Asia and suspend U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar, although retain an arms embargo.
Describing the administration's record on trade as "shameful," McCain said Monday the U.S. has been "sitting on the sidelines" while China has moved swiftly to secure free trade agreements in Asia and Latin America.
He said the U.S. was negotiating too slowly on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP — a trade pact with eight other nations — and should seek bilateral pacts with Taiwan and India.
"The bottom line is that America's long-term strategic and economic success requires an ambitious trade strategy in Asia," McCain, R-Ariz., said in a speech on U.S. policy toward Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Last year, the U.S. finalized trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama initiated under Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush. Obama has made the TPP the main plank of his trade agenda going forward and has said the U.S. wants to complete an agreement this year — a goal that many analysts view as unrealistic.
U.S., Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru are currently negotiating to join the pact, which already brings together the smaller economies of Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore.
McCain said the U.S. needs to bring other Southeast Asian countries into the TPP, or push for a formal trade agreement with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian nations.
The Republican senator, who has visited Myanmar twice in the past year, became the latest U.S. lawmaker to seek a faster easing of economic restrictions on Myanmar's military-dominated government, to reward it for democratic reforms.
Rights groups oppose such a step, saying it would benefit military cronies and ease pressure on Myanmar to release all its political prisoners and end ethnic conflicts. The European Union has already suspended its economic sanctions, other than its arms embargo. The U.S. is preparing to allow some investment but will retain trade restrictions.
McCain stressed there should be standards of corporate responsibility for U.S. businesses working in Myanmar to strengthen the private sector and loosen military control of the economy.
McCain called for tougher sanctions against North Korea, and for China to use its economic sway to pressure its impoverished ally, which last month launched a long-range rocket in defiance of a U.N. ban. According to South Korean intelligence and expert assessments of satellite imagery, the North is preparing a third nuclear test.
"The only country that can really force change in North Korea is obviously China," McCain said. "They've got the levers of power to do that."