By David Lawder
DALLAS (Reuters) - Former U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday entered the debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, hosting a forum at his presidential library extolling his successor's Asian free trade deal.
Bush, who signed several such accords during his two terms in office, met with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman before the event to promote the strategic benefits of the agreement.
President Barack Obama is still pushing for Congress to approve the 12-country TPP following the Nov. 8 presidential election, even though both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton oppose it.
Bush, who has largely stayed out of the campaign - in which Trump's anti-trade rhetoric fueled his rise to the Republican nomination - did not attend the forum at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.
"I'm very grateful for him welcoming me to this institute and having the institute host this important conversation," Froman told the audience of largely business people after his meeting with Bush. "And I'm very grateful for his support of free trade as well."
Ken Hersh, director of the Bush Institute, called TPP "a no-brainer on a whole host of fronts."
The forum followed a similar event on Monday night in Houston where Froman enlisted the help of another Republican free-trader, James Baker, who served the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as secretary of the Treasury and secretary of state, respectively.
"Both major party candidates for the presidency oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. And guess what? They're both wrong," Baker, 86, said at the Rice University institute that bears his name.
"I've often found myself in disagreement with President Obama. But on TPP I am with him, and I am with him 100 percent," Baker added.
In a speech at the Houston event, Froman emphasized the need for TPP as a counterbalance to China's growing economic and political influence in Asia, citing its own regional trade deal and more assertive stance in the South China Sea.
"If we don't act, it will create a vacuum. These economies aren't going to stand still. Beijing will step in to fill the void," Froman said.
At the Bush Institute, Susan Schwab, who served as George W. Bush's last trade representative, said failure to pass TPP would mark an abdication of U.S. leadership.
"There are countries out there that would dearly love to see the United States fall on its face by not enacting, by not ratifying this deal," she said.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Dan Grebler)