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POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

Obama warns China against skirting rules on trade

larry downing/Reuters

President Obama and David Cameron caught the game between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky in Ohio Tuesday.

WASHINGTON - President Obama warned China on Tuesday that it would not be allowed to gain a competitive advantage in world trade by “skirting the rules.’’

Making an election-year pitch to American workers, and businesses as well, Obama announced Washington has brought a new trade case against Beijing. The goal is to pressure China, a rising Asian economic power, to end its restrictions on exports of key materials used to manufacture hybrid car batteries, flat screen televisions, and other high tech-goods.

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“If China would simply let the market work on its own, we’d have no objection,’’ Obama said during remarks in the White House Rose Garden. “But their policies currently are preventing that from happening. And they go against the very rules that China agreed to follow.’’

The United States, working in conjunction with the European Union and Japan, asked the World Trade Organization on Tuesday to facilitate talks with China over its curtailment of exports of what’s known as rare earth minerals. Obama cast the fresh action against China as part of a broader push to level the playing field for US companies.

“When it is necessary, I will take action if our workers and our businesses are being subjected to unfair practices,’’ Obama said.

With the US economy slowly recovering from recession, Obama has sought to bring a renewed focus on Chinese policies that could hinder US expansion. He used an executive order last month to create a new trade enforcement agency - the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center - to move aggressively against China and other nations.

Obama’s posture on China has already surfaced as an election-year issue, with Republican front-runner Mitt Romney criticizing him for refusing so far to cite China for manipulating its currency. Romney has said he would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, a move that could lead to trade sanctions against Beijing.

The White House insisted that Tuesday’s announcement was not intended to be a counter to Republican criticism. “The president’s commitment on this has been evident from the very beginning, and this is simply part of that effort,’’ White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

China has a stranglehold on the global supply of 17 rare earth minerals that are essential for making high-tech goods, including hybrid cars, weapons, flat-screen TVs, mobile phones, mercury-vapor lights, and smartphones. The materials also are used in the manufacture of tiny motors, such as those used to raise and lower car windows and in consumer electronics.

China has reduced its export quotas of these rare earth minerals over the past several years to cope with a growing demand during rapid business expansion at home, although Chinese officials also cite environmental concerns as the reason for the restrictions. US industry officials suggest it is an unfair trade practice that violates rules established by the World Trade Organization.

Administration officials said Beijing’s export restrictions give Chinese companies a competitive advantage by providing them access to more of these rare materials at a cheaper price.

Obama treats Cameron to bit of March Madness

DAYTON, Ohio - President Obama, the basketball fan in chief, gave British Prime Minister David Cameron a front-row seat to March Madness, taking his European partner to an election swing state for an NCAA tournament game.

Amid cheers, the two leaders entered the University of Dayton Arena on Tuesday for a “First Four’’ matchup between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky, a gesture of good will during Cameron’s official visit to the United States and a way for an incumbent president to reach sports fans in an election year.

Adding to the heavy hoops flavor of the day, Obama announced his NCAA tournament bracket picks to ESPN, the sports network he watches on a daily basis. On Tuesday, the network teased Obama’s selections by revealing his Final Four picks: Kentucky, Ohio State, Missouri, and North Carolina.

It was the fourth straight year that Obama filled out an NCAA tournament bracket for ESPN. On the women’s side, he selected Baylor, St. John’s, Connecticut, and Notre Dame to advance.

ESPN will reveal the president’s full men’s bracket Wednesday. Cameron’s sporting tastes run more toward tennis, cricket, and soccer. Tuesday’s was the first college basketball game he has seen.

The White House said the trip to the NCAA tournament game was intended to showcase the special relationship between the two key allies during Cameron’s three-day visit. Obama and Cameron will discuss the upcoming NATO and G-8 summits on Wednesday, followed by a state dinner at the White House.

Joining Obama at the game was Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, who greeted Obama with a big handshake at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Kasich gave Obama two letters, which his office said were from the governor’s twin daughters, who wanted to welcome the Democratic president to the state.

Still, other Republicans panned the trip, saying many Americans would prefer Obama to focus on more pressing issues.

“While showing off our amazing college basketball teams is great, many Americans struggling to find jobs, dealing with soaring gas prices, or concerned with our rising deficit and debt would probably like the president to spend at least as much time dealing with those issues,’’ said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Obama’s quick trip to Ohio offered a chance to connect with basketball fans and generate attention in Ohio, which he carried in the 2008 election and is considered one of the top tossup states in 2012. The trip comes one week after Republican front-runner Mitt Romney captured Ohio’s GOP primary.

It also let Obama lavish praise and attention on Cameron at a time of weighty foreign policy challenges in Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria. Britain has been an important US ally in Afghanistan and in the bombing campaign in Libya that led to the removal of Moammar Khadafy.

Cameron is frequently spotted running near his official Downing Street residence, flanked by his security detail. But he’s not much of a basketball fan; British Ambassador Peter Westmacott told reporters in Washington on Monday that Cameron was “busy briefing himself on March Madness.’’

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