Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa should not take it too personally if the United States administration appears to be otherwise engaged when he visits Washington next week. For, although Mr Tung will undoubtedly secure meetings with top administration officials, his trip will take place during a week when White House thoughts are directed towards Latin America. More than two years after the expiry of his 'fast-track' power to negotiate international trade agreements, President Bill Clinton is gearing up, with an eruption of lobbying on Capitol Hill, to try to win the power back. Fast track is the kind of phrase that sends Washington's immense army of trade lawyers, trade experts and trade journalists into paroxysms of excitement, while sending the other 99.999 per cent of humanity off to a sound sleep. Just because the subject may sound drier than a Sudanese summer, that does not mean the American public can afford to ignore it. Trade officials all over the world certainly do not. Indeed, nary an Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), World Trade Organisation or other important international talking-shop convenes without visiting American officials being consistently asked when they are going to get their fast track back, a question that usually leaves the US dignitary with an expression teetering between apology, frustration and downright anger. What fast track would do, if Congress will agree this autumn to reinstate it, is allow the administration to enter into trade agreements with partners unimpeded by meddlesome US legislators. All members of Congress would be able to do is vote for or against the entire package - as it did in 1994, when it passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) shortly before the fast track authority expired. The problem for US officials is that going into trading talks with other countries without fast track is like turning up in one's underwear. One tends to feel naked, powerless and prone to ridicule. Washington is desperate to have a full set of clothes reinstated to its trade officials as soon as possible. The main reason for its haste is that, without fast track, its efforts to extend NAFTA (which links the US, Canada and Mexico) to countries in South America will fall on stony ground. While Washington does not foresee a NAFTA-style Free Trade of the Americas agreement coming into being until well into the next decade, the European Union is already talking to the powerful and populous Mercosur area countries - Brazil, Argentina, and Chile - about a trading bloc. On the commercial front, trade between the EU and Mercosur in 1995, which was worth US$43 billion (HK$333 billion), eclipsed the US$29 billion volume of trade between Mercosur and the US. In Asia, the APEC nations find themselves less open to the idea that trade liberalisation should be accelerated, ahead of the establishment of a free-trade zone, as a way of exploiting Washington's lack of a fast-track presidential power. The Clinton administration's attempt in 1995 to get fast track renewed was blocked by the more bloody-minded projectionist rump of the Congressional Democrats who are allied to the labour movement and believe free trade kills US jobs. As lobbying begins this week for another bite at the cherry, battle lines have formed in exactly the same places. The left wing of the Democratic Party appears even more committed to blocking fast track, for several reasons. One is that its main standard-bearer, Congressman Dick Gephardt, intends to challenge Vice-President Al Gore for the presidential nomination in 2000, and he likes to distance himself from Mr Gore by emphasising issues that appeal to his traditional power base - the unions and working men and women. To win the race, Mr Gephardt has to appeal to voters who believe that all is not well beneath the veneer of America's economic boom. He and other Democrats opposed the NAFTA and GATT deals, arguing that they would destroy American jobs by encouraging US firms to relocate factories overseas. When the fast-track bill is introduced next week, they will oppose it on the same grounds, claiming that their warnings on NAFTA proved correct. A recent White House report on the consequences of NAFTA denied there had been a net loss of jobs, but conceded there had been only 'modest' gains for the US economy, largely due to Mexico's subsequent economic crisis. That is hardly a ringing endorsement. Another problem for President Clinton is that a large slice of the Republican Party also is opposed to fast track. While Republican leaders remain free-traders committed to the fast-track idea, the most prominent of them - House Speaker Newt Gingrich - is politically weak, having just survived a couple of internal coups d'etat designed to unseat him in favour of someone more committed to the conservatives' programme. The Clinton administration is dressed for battle, with a US$3 million advertising and PR campaign in the works. The fight should be a bloody and fascinating one - and the outcome will either confirm or deny the US' pride of place as the global champion of free trade.