President Obama said Wednesday that China could be open to eventually joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive trade deal the White House is hoping to get through Congress.
"They've already started putting out feelers about the possibilities of them participating at some point," the president told Kai Ryssdal of "Marketplace" from American Public Media.
The president said the Chinese have already started to reach out to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and others about joining the American-led effort sometime in the future.
The comments come as the president is making a massive lobbying push and media blitz as he tries to sell a possible deal to skeptical members members of his own party.
The question of how China would react to the partnership has been a big one looming over negotiations. The deal between the U.S., Canada and other Asia-Pacific countries was aimed at combating the growing influence of China in the region, pressuring other neighboring countries to accept fair economic and labor standards before China could strike its own trade deal in the region.
While the major global player was once concerned about the TPP, they had since turned quiet on the deal and many expected they would eventually warm to it and even join the agreement.
However, progressive Democrats — led by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — have been vocal in their opposition to giving President Obama "fast track" authority on the deal, slamming its secrecy and effect it could have on wages and U.S. jobs.
If the deal were to go through, it would be the largest the U.S. has going. If China were added, it would be even bigger.
Obama reiterated that the parameters of the deal would put pressure on China to put in place fairer standards and practices across the board, which would be a boon for trade and U.S. companies abroad.
"The fact is that if we have 11 of the leading economies in the Asia-Pacific region, who have agreed to enforceable labor standards, enforceable environmental standards, strong IP protections, non-discrimination against foreign firms that are operating, access to those markets, reduce tariffs, then China is going to have to at least take those international norms into account," the president told Ryssdal.
Obama underscored that the U.S. is "still pursuing strong bilateral economic relations with China, we still pressure them around issues like currency or the subsidies that they may engaged in or theft of intellectual property."
He added, "We still directly deal with them on those issues, but it sure helps if they are surrounded with countries that are operating with these same kinds of high standards that, by the way, we already abide by. ... So part of what we're doing here is we are leveling up, as opposed to a race to the bottom, which means no labor protections, no environmental protections. We want to make sure that there's a level playing field that's going to allow us to be successful and will help to shape trade and commerce, not just in the region, but in the world for a long time to come."