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US trade pick clears hurdle in Senate

President Barack Obama's choice of Michael Froman to be the next US trade representative moved to the full Senate for consideration, after its Judiciary Committee approved the White House economic adviser for the post.

Tuesday's vote by the committee followed a confirmation hearing last week at which Froman testified that the United States, China and the European Union have had initial talks toward a possible "global" resolution to ongoing trade disputes over Chinese exports of solar-energy panels.

Froman, who now serves as Obama's deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, disclosed the three-way discussions two days after the EU imposed temporary duties of nearly 12 percent on imports of solar panels from China. The duties, which expire on Aug 6, will be replaced by higher tariffs - up to 68 percent, depending on the manufacturer - unless European and Chinese negotiators reach a resolution in the meantime.

The solar panel dispute took on new urgency with the news on Tuesday, reported by Reuters, that the EU plans to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization over China's duties on European exports of stainless-steel tubes used in power plants.

The US government last year hit Chinese exporters of solar panels with billions of dollars of duties on solar panels, and the photovoltaic cells and polysilicon wafers they contain, alleging that they were produced with government subsidies and unfairly sold below market cost. The day after the EU announced its solar tariffs, China said it was opening a trade investigation into European-made wines. Beijing's response to the US action has been to threaten duties on imports of US-made polysilicon.

At the June 6 hearing, Froman told Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon that if confirmed as the top US trade official, he would seek a three-way pact to resolve the dispute. The nominee said the current standoff hurts manufacturers of polysilicon and panels, as well as installers of solar equipment in American homes and businesses.

Froman has promised to pursue wide-ranging trade agreements with Asia-Pacific countries and Europe, while working to improve US economic ties to China. At his Finance Committee hearing last week, he said he would work to renew the trade promotion, or "fast track", authority that allows a US president to reach trade deals with other countries, subject only to an up-or-down vote in Congress. The authority, which expired in 2007 under Obama's predecessor George W. Bush, also bars lawmakers from amending White House-approved trade deals.

In nominating Froman on May 2 along with Penny Pritzker as commerce secretary, Obama said his priority was reviving the US trade agenda in hope of increasing exports and accelerating economic growth. Pritzker was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee on Monday, and her nomination is also headed to the full Senate for a vote.

Froman, who in his current White House role attended last weekend's informal summit in California between Obama and China's President Xi Jinping, has business ties to China, as does Pritzker. That background is likely to prove helpful to US-China commercial and trade relations if the two nominees are confirmed, experts said.

As the successor to Ron Kirk, who resigned in March as US trade representative, Froman would be a key figure in executing Obama's export-growth initiatives through major trade-and-investment agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The US and 11 other countries, including Japan, are negotiating the TPP, and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said on May 30 that China was studying the possibility of joining the talks. Previously, Beijing had been alternately cool to the idea or critical of the proposed agreement as a US-led attempt to contain China economically.

China in 2012 remained the third-biggest destination for US exports, behind Canada and Mexico, with almost $109 billion in goods purchased, according to the US-China Business Council. The value of American imports to China increased 6.5 percent, or $6.6 billion, outpacing the country's economic growth.

Last week, the Commerce Department said the US trade deficit with China rose to $24.1 billion in April. Washington has blamed the continued trade gap in part on what it says is an artificially strong yuan, China's currency. Chinese officials counter that over the past three years the yuan has gradually risen in value against the dollar and is "approaching fair value", State Councilor Yang Jiechi said during the weekend talks between Xi and Obama. 

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