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US pursues Trans-Pacific trade pact


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September 23, 2008

US pursues Trans-Pacific trade pact
The United States will begin negotiations early next year to join a free-trade agreement between Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand that it hopes will grow into an even larger Trans-Pacific trade pact, Reuters quoted a US trade official as saying Monday.

"We need to ensure our trade will continue to expand so that it can contribute to US economic growth in the future. Strengthening our economic ties to the Trans-Pacific region is vital to achieving this goal," US Trade Representative Susan Schwab said at a press conference.

The decision to launch talks to join the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement comes as the Bush administration is nearing the end of its term and already struggling to persuade Congress to approve trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has been critical of Bush administration trade pacts, and put far less emphasis on negotiating new deals than on changing the 14-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement by adding stronger labor and environmental provisions.

But with China, Japan and others in the region moving to stitch up trade deals, many business groups fear the United States could be left behind if it does not follow suit.

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for nearly 60 percent of world economic output and about half of global trade.

Schwab said she believed launching the initiative would bolster chances for congressional approval of the Colombia, Panama and South Korea pacts, and help spur the long-running Doha round of world trade talks to a successful conclusion.

"Ultimately, the objective is to expand the membership of the agreement to other nations that share our vision of free and fair trade," Schwab said at an event with her counterparts from the Pacific Four countries.

Australia, Vietnam and Peru also are considering joining the Trans-Pacific pact, a US trade official said.

The United States already has separate free-trade deals with Chile and Singapore, but not with Brunei and New Zealand.

Earlier this year, it began talks on a financial services and investment pact with the "P4" countries in the hopes of eventually joining the larger agreement.

New Zealand has pressed for years for a free trade agreement with the United States, but has faced strong opposition from US dairy and other farmers worried opening about the U.S. market to a strong competitor.

"There are clearly sensitivies that need to be negotiated," Schwab said. But "our dairy industry really has been remarkable in its development over the last 10 to 20 years ... This is a sector that is increasingly sophisticated about its stake in more open trade," she said.

Fears of New Zealand flooding the United States with cheap imports are unjustified because the country does not subsidize its farmers, New Zealand's trade minister Phil Goff said.

"The American dairy industry is alive and well and thriving, quite able to compete with New Zealand," Goff said.

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