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'Buy American' Meets Formidable Challenge

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China, that also adopted massive stimulus package to spur its economy, said "no" to a similar plan that bans foreign products in its domestic stimulus projects.

"We won't practice 'Buy China'," said Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Jiang Zengwei last Monday, "We'll treat domestic and foreign products equally as long as they are needed."

Despite international doubts, "Buy American" provisions in the stimulus bill managed to strike its way through the Congress. Final approval of the plan coincided with the G7 meeting in Rome on last Friday, raising deeper worry from G7 participants about widespread protectionism.

In the meeting, finance ministers and central bank governors of the leading industrialized countries pledged to prevent the snowball from getting rolling by voicing unanimous opposition against trade barriers and advocating open trade and free market.

British Financial Minister Alistair Darling said protectionism "is very damaging and will hold up the recovery."

Meanwhile, German Financial Minister Peer Steinbrueck called for full efforts to "ensure history does not repeat itself," referring to the spread of protectionism during the Great Depression.

Amid such collective concern, new US finance minister Timothy Geithner tried to ease the worry at the G7 meeting by reaffirming Washington's determination to comply with international trade obligations and President Barack Obama's commitment to open trade.

Catcalls at home

Apart from criticism from abroad, the provisions gained no easy passes at home. During the heated discussion of the bill in the Congress, Republican Senator John McCain, Obama's rival in the presidential election, had proposed to wipe off the protectionist measures, saying that "should we enact such a provision, it will only be a matter of time before we face an array of similar protectionism from other countries -- from 'Buy European' to 'Buy Japanese' and more."

Although his proposal was rejected, the Senate did make amendments by adding languages requiring the implementation of the bill to honor international trade commitments.

A study conducted by Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott, both economists at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said "the negative job impact of foreign retaliation against 'Buy American' provisions could easily outweigh the positive effect of the measures on jobs in the US iron and steel sector and other industries."

Moreover, one day after the stimulus packaged was passed by the Congress, the US Consumer Electronics Association issued a statement warning "the 'Buy American' provisions in the stimulus bill will signal to our trading partners around the world that the US is returning to the bad old days of protectionism and economic nationalism."

"Rather than stimulate the American economy, these provisions will lead to retaliation from abroad and cost precious jobs in the United States," said Gary Shapiro, president of the association, who also dismissed the promise of keeping with the letter of WTO commitments as "a meaningless gesture."

Such mounting criticism has put President Obama in a tough position. In his election campaign, Obama emphasized his determination to protect and create domestic job opportunities, and even touched upon questions weather the US trade pacts were protective enough for the national industries.

However, amid strong pressure from the international society, the formidable challenge for Obama now is to strike a balance between ensuring domestic job opportunities and strictly respecting trade obligations.

(Xinhua News Agency February 17, 2009)

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