HONOLULU -- Asia Pacific business groups urged President Barack Obama and eight other regional leaders to set a goal of mid-2012 for concluding a Pacific free trade agreement.
The groups also said they would welcome Japan's joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks provided it is willing to quickly tackle long-standing barriers to its markets and did not drag out the talks.
"We view the TPP as a once-in-a-generation venture that provides the opportunity to advance the interest of workers and enterprises in nine key countries," Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, told reporters.
"It can also serve as a foundation for a free-trade agreement of the entire Asia Pacific," he said at a news conference to release a statement from ten business groups.
The United States is hoping to make progress on the TPP talks at the APEC summit in Honolulu this week, heralding it as a template for high-quality agreements on free trade
The nine TPP countries -- United States, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Chile and Peru -- are also members of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, meeting this week in Hawaii.
Trade ministers from the TPP countries are meeting on Thursday, which is expected to set the stage for leaders to announce on Saturday the broad outlines of deal and that they are well on the way to finishing the talks.
However, it's not clear leaders will set a firm deadline. TPP negotiators have already held nine rounds of talks and are are expected to hold at least five more in 2012.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been widely expected to announce Japan's interest this week in joining the talks, although he has been battling domestic opposition at home from agriculture and other domestic interests who fear opening Japan's market.
In addition, senior members of Congress have urged Obama not to commit to Japan's participation until Tokyo has demonstrated it is willing to tackle long-time barriers to U.S. exports in areas from beef to autos.
Cohen said it was up to Japan to show it is prepared to move quickly to reach a deal.
"It's really in their hands. Will they be announcing a readiness to tackle the very difficult issues that many have identified with regard to access to japan's market? I believe if they are, their inclusion earlier rather than later will not hold up the successful conclusion of the talks soon," he said.
If they need more time to address tough agricultural issues, "then it will be very difficult for them to be part of TPP and still see the negotiations conclude by 2012," he said.
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