New U.S. trade chief focused on India, striking deals


New U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on Friday said he expected growing trade problems with India to be a major early focus of his tenure, but stopped short of saying the United States should cut off benefits for that country.

"We have a number of concerns about the investment and innovation environment in India," Froman told Reuters in an interview shortly after being sworn into office. "It's something that we're very focused on."

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Those concerns include India's use of compulsory licenses to suspend patents on U.S. drugs and localization policies that discriminate against foreign goods.

In recent weeks, members of Congress and business groups have sent a number of letters urging President Barack Obama's administration to take a tougher line, including when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in New Delhi next week for the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue.

Froman, who until recently was Obama's chief international economic affairs adviser, said he expected to raise the same concerns next month in Washington at the U.S.-India CEO Summit, and potentially in a future meeting of the U.S.-India Trade Policy Forum, which has not met since 2010.

The mounting concerns over India's trade policy comes as a long-time program to help developing countries export their goods to the United States is up for renewal.

Some lawmakers have suggested removing India from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program in retaliation for the country's trade policy moves.

Froman treaded carefully on that question, noting that many U.S. companies benefit from GSP, since it lowers their production costs by waiving duties on imports.

"So we need to take a careful look at that ... This is something we want to work with Congress on," Froman said.

Froman, whose friendship with Obama goes back to their days at Harvard Law School, takes over the top U.S. trade post at one of its busiest times in recent years.

The United States hopes to wrap up trade talks with Japan and 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region by the end of the year, and will hold the first round of talks on a proposed U.S.-EU agreement the week of July 8.

"It's a very full agenda that all revolves around creating jobs in the United States," Froman said.

Finishing talks on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership by December 31 is "an ambitious timetable, but that is the objective we have set out," he said.

On another issue, Froman said the United States generally welcomed Chinese investment but that he could not comment on Shuanghui International's proposed takeover of Smithfield Foods because it was still under review.

He said he expected a decision on whether to suspend GSP trade benefits for Bangladesh by the end of June, following recent tragedies that have raised concern about working conditions in that country's garment sector.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Andrea Ricci)