U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended Friday a recently agreed-to 12-nation Pacific trade pact, saying the Trans-Pacific Partnership would provide a counterbalance to China's growing influence in the region while also opening up promising Asian markets with their burgeoning middle class.
Vilsack told The Associated Press in an interview that many Asian countries are concerned about the rise of Chinese power, "and whether or not it's disproportionate, and whether or not there needs to be a balance."
The trade agreement, he said, "creates the kind of coalition of nations, if you will, that provides that balance."
Vilsack, who met with Japanese government officials, students and young farmers, is en route to China to take part in annual U.S.-China trade talks in Guangzhou from Saturday to Monday.
The wide-ranging trade agreement, known as TPP, faces a tough ratification battle in the U.S. Congress. Farmers in Japan also worry about the impact of lowering or eliminating tariffs on agricultural imports. Other signatories include Canada, Mexico, Australia and Vietnam, but not China.
The pact would help American beef producers and others tap into a growing population of Asian consumers who are demanding high-end, safe food products, Vilsack said.
"There is an expanding market opportunity in Asia, and particularly the middle class consumers, which I think plays to the strengths of any country that can produce high value-added items," he said.
That includes Japan as well as the U.S., he added, while acknowledging the unease some farmers feel.
"I had a fruit plate today at the hotel where I'm staying that was one of the best meals that I have ever eaten," he said. "And I will tell you that if the rest of the world could see that fruit plate in their kitchens, and in their restaurants, and in their homes, I guarantee you that there's a market opportunity there."
Besides Japan, Vilsack cited Vietnam and Malaysia as markets where TPP tariff reductions would help U.S. exporters of meat, nuts and other products.
Japan is the fourth largest market for U.S. agricultural exports, importing $13.2 billion-worth in 2014. The TPP countries, led by Canada and Mexico, account for 42 percent of U.S. agricultural exports.