The United States needs to deepen its economic engagement in Latin America in response to competitive pressures from China and European Union, a top U.S. trade official said.

“The world isn’t going to stand still for us. We have to realize that,” Commerce Under Secretary for International Trade Francisco Sanchez said in an interview as part of the Reuters Latin American Summit.

“Do we need more engagement in the Americas? The answer is yes. I intend to be very, very engaged,” said Sanchez, just hours after returning from a visit to Brazil. Sanchez, who was a senior policy advisor to President Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, took his current post about five weeks ago. Since then, Latin America has been high on his agenda, he said.

“I believe that the (Latin American) region is very important to the long-term commercial interests of the United States, for a whole host of reasons. Let’s start with the fact that 42 percent of our total trade is done in the Western Hemisphere,” Sanchez said. U.S. business groups, however, are concerned that the United States is letting opportunities to boost exports to region slip through its fingers by failing to approve long-delayed free-trade agreements with Panama and Colombia.

“At some point, in the not-too-distant future and we’re going to wake up and find out that the strategic balance in the Hemisphere has changed” as China steps up it investments, Brazil emerges as bigger regional power and other competitors step forward, Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of Americas, said in a separate interview. A third U.S. free-trade pact with South Korea has also languished because of opposition from U.S. Democrats.

Sanchez acknowledged competitive pressures on the United States were building as the EU moves to close free trade deals with both Panama and Colombia as early as this month.

The 27-nation bloc also is planning to resume talks on a free trade agreement with the South American nations of Mercosur, which are Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, both EU and Brazilian officials said on Tuesday.

Obama “has consistently voiced his support for all three of the pending free-trade agreements. There is no doubt that he knows we need to get those passed,” Sanchez said. “We can do all the trade missions in the world and that’s not going to get us to his goal (of doubling exports in five years). The only way we’re going to get there is by reducing trade barriers, and free trade agreements are one of the most effective ways of doing that,” he added.

“What I’m less optimistic about is the timing,” Sanchez added, saying he couldn’t predict with certainty whether any of the agreements would be passed this year because of the crowded legislative schedule and political obstacles. The United States also must recognize and respond to the fact that “China has a much bigger presence in Latin America than it had just five years ago, he said. Still, the United States has an advantage in trade relations with Brazil because what it buys is “much more value-added” than China’s commodity purchases, he said. That gives Brazil and the United States “a vested interest” in deepening trade ties in areas ranging from aerospace to express delivery, he said. (Reuters)

At this week’s U.S.-Brazil Commercial Dialogue meeting, the two sides agreed to deepen green technology trade and work to boost trade caused by harmonizing product standards.

The United States remains the largest foreign investor in Brazil, with two-way trade totaling $46 billion last year, Commerce Department officials said.