U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk attends the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 28, 2012. He acts as the chief lawyer for the president and Congress on trade matters.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk attends the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 28, 2012. He acts as the chief lawyer for the president and Congress on trade matters. - 

David Brancaccio: The economic giant known as China is coming off a bad month. There's word today Chinese exports fell half a percent in January. The downturn in Europe is probably at work there, but even more striking is what happened to China's imports, down more than 15 percent. That's something U.S. manufacturers don't want to hear and it will likely be a topic when the man who could become China's new leader comes to Washington next week.

Vice President Xi Jinping has business with President Obama and, among others, U.S. Trade Representative, Ron Kirk, who joins us to talk about the plan for trade. Good morning, Ambassador Kirk.

Ron Kirk: Good morning, David. Thank you for having me.

Brancaccio: President Obama talked about a new trade enforcement team to crack down on unfair trade practices by other countries; I think it was in the State of the Union speech. If you could take me a bit inside this team -- how would it work?

Kirk: One of the biggest complaints we heard from businesses even was that they felt we just weren't enforcing our trade rules, and while America had freely opened up our borders and our markets, many of our competitors they thought were gaming the system. So we made a commitment to a stronger enforcement program; we've been working to make sure any of our trading partners, they do one simple thing: open their markets the way they committed to as members of the World Trade Organization.

Brancaccio: So Ambassador Kirk, right now, regarding U.S. trade -- would you say the number one violator of trade rules is China?

Kirk: I wouldn't -- did not say that because the reality is, one of the reasons the United States supported China's entry into the World Trade Organization is we realize we had an opportunity to create jobs in the United States by being able to help China with its growth needs. But that only works if China opens up its markets the way we've opened up ours to them.

Brancaccio: Which part of this is the most concerning to you -- the U.S. and China are on each other's nerves in a variety of areas. I was going through the list, I came up with car parts, wind turbines, raw materials. Is there a particular piece of that that you're focused on?

Kirk: You know, there isn't one, and my job in particular, as the chief lawyer for the president and Congress on trade matters, is to do everything we can to work with China through either dialogue, or if we have to, by going to the World Trade Organization and prosecuting a case. But this is one of the most important relationships in the world, in terms of keeping peace, in terms of economic harmonization and liberalization. But it's going to take constant engagement.

Brancaccio: Well Ambassador Kirk, thank you very much for this.

Kirk: Thank you.

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Follow David Brancaccio at @DavidBrancaccio