The Obama administration reportedly is weighing complaints from U.S. payments companies that China is violating trade rules by shutting them out of its $723 billion payment-processing market, trade representative Ron Kirk said Friday.

According to Bloomberg News, Kirk said the United States has not yet decided whether to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization over the rules, which block companies such as Visa Inc., American Express Co., MasterCard Inc., Discover Financial Services and First Data Corp. from processing credit- and debit-card transactions in China.

Those companies have alleged in recent weeks that China is violating pledges, made when joining the WTO in 2001, to allow full access to that market, according to people familiar with the talks who asked not to be identified because the U.S. is still considering the issue.

The case highlights the rising tensions between the two countries, adding to disputes on issues from currency policy to import duties to Internet censorship.

In January, U.S. trade associations accused China of developing policies that favor local companies.

"If the government was looking to get tough on China, this is a solid case to take on," David Hartridge, a senior trade policy adviser for the law firm White & Case LLP in Geneva and a former WTO official, said in an interview.

At stake is a market in which payment card purchases surged have more than 26-fold since 2002, according to Terry Xie, an analyst at Mercator Advisory Group in Maynard, Mass. Card spending, excluding automated teller machine transactions, jumped to $722.7 billion in China last year and may reach $1.2 trillion by 2012, Xie said. That would be almost half the payments Visa processed worldwide in 2009.

"China is still very much a cash-based society," said Adam Frisch, an analyst with Morgan Stanley. "You have a market that over the long term could be an immense opportunity."

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