DALLAS--Talks on a regional free trade agreement between the United States and eight countries in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region made good progress over the past week, but tough issues remain, the top U.S. trade negotiator on the deal said on May 16.
"While we have work ahead, we see a clear path forward toward conclusion of most of more than the 20 chapters of the agreement," Barbara Weisel, assistant U.S. trade representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told reporters.
Weisel said the nine countries negotiating the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact will meet again in early July in San Diego and "hope to use that round to make a major step forward toward conclusion of the agreement."
The TPP is a key element of President Barack Obama's so-called pivot toward Asia to help propel U.S. economic growth. It is seen as an important tool to keep the United States anchored in the region as China's economic might grows.
The eight other TPP countries - Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei - as a group are already the fourth largest U.S. market for goods and services exports.
The countries face a host of difficult issues, ranging from Vietnam's interest in better access to the U.S. textile and clothing market to U.S. demands for tough new rules on "state-owned enterprises" to make sure they don't have an unfair trade advantage in the region over private companies.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and top trade officials from the other eight TPP countries will meet in early June in Kazan, Russia on the sidelines of the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade ministers meeting.
Weisel, who resisted predicting how soon countries could reach a final agreement, said the nine TPP ministers would "discuss progress achieved to date and agree on a plan forward."
The top trade officials will also discuss Japan, Canada and Mexico's applications to join the talks.
All three countries expressed interest in November and still have not been given an answer.
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