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Bush, Feeling the Pressure, Vows to Get Tough on Trade : Economy: He says he will tell Asian leaders on upcoming trip that the U.S. wants action.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under political pressure to demonstrate concern for the plight of U.S. workers, President Bush on Thursday unveiled a get-tough approach toward America’s trading partners, saying the nation has “shown a lot of forbearance” and now wants action.

The President, after meeting with business leaders who will accompany him on a four-nation Asian tour in early January, said he will tell the foreign leaders: “We want markets that are fully open to American goods and services.”

Criticism that he has neglected the nation’s domestic problems prompted Bush to postpone the trip, originally scheduled for November. In discussing the agenda for his trip, he now insists the journey is about “American jobs” and economic prosperity at home.

With the presidential election campaign gearing up, Bush has joined Democrats in directing blame for the nation’s economic problems at America’s trading partners.

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This morning, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and several other Democrats are scheduled to unveil proposed legislation that would impose economic sanctions on imported Japanese automobiles if the U.S. balance of trade with Japan does not improve.

Speaking at a press conference for foreign journalists, Bush also promised the people of Cuba that, if they can cast off Fidel Castro and his Communist system, U.S. economic assistance would begin flowing to their distressed nation.

Castro should “give the people the freedom that they want,” Bush said. “Then you’ll see the United States do exactly what we should: go down, lift these people up and say, ‘We want to help you.’ ”

Bush said that he spoke Wednesday with Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, and recently with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, about unresolved problems posed by the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

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But he insisted that only those Haitians seeking asylum in the United States for political reasons will be given refuge. “Those who leave for purely economic reasons are not entitled to harbor under our laws,” he said.

The President’s comments on foreign trade reflected increasing White House sensitivity as critics--such as conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who is challenging Bush for the Republican presidential nomination--complain that the President should tend to domestic problems before turning his focus overseas.

On his trip to Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, Bush will be accompanied by, among others, the chairmen of General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp.

Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca said after the White House meeting that “the American public needs an answer” to the question of why the Japanese are expected to buy only 15,000 American-made cars this year, while an estimated 3.8 million Japanese vehicles are being shipped to the United States. “There’s something wrong with that,” Iacocca said.

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After meeting with Bush, James Herr, chairman of Herr Foods, said, “We get promises, promises (from Japan), but no action.”

A Commerce Department report on the nation’s merchandise trade balance, meanwhile, confirmed fears that the persistent deficit with Japan, which reached $41.1 billion last year, is heading higher. The trade gap with Japan, which amounts to nearly two-thirds of the total U.S. trade deficit, was $4.64 billion in October, the highest monthly reading in 32 months.

Speaking with the foreign reporters, Bush said that “our friends and allies” have benefited from the openness of U.S. markets, “and must share the responsibility for an open trading system.”

In an opening statement aimed as much at his domestic critics as at his audience in a government auditorium next door to the White House, Bush said: “Engagements in the global marketplace affect the prices that we pay for goods and services. . . . We must stay engaged overseas because it matters so much right here at home.”

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He said that on the Asian trip, he will seek to make clear “what’s at stake in terms of jobs for the American people. That message I will carry very, very forcefully. We have shown a lot of forbearance,” he said. “I want to see fair play.”

In another area, Bush expressed frustration with the snail-like pace of the now-interrupted Middle East peace talks. He promised that the United States will continue to try to play the role of “catalyst,” without dictating solutions.

Bush also reaffirmed his long-held interest in reaching an agreement with Mexico to set up a North American free trade zone.


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