Complex issues remain in Trans-Pacific talks

TIM HUNTER
Last updated 13:39 12/12/2012

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Trade negotiators wrapped up talks in Auckland today saying they had made progress towards a trans-Pacific agreement, but many sensitive issues remained outstanding.

At a press conference in Auckland, New Zealand's chief negotiator David Walker said some technical issues had been resolved in areas such as Customs and phytosanitary controls. 

In more complex and sensitive areas, such as intellectual property, environmental and investment, he said: "We've been working to resolve a number of technical issues and to more clearly frame up differences on issues that will need to be resolved.

"On market access negotiations, discussions continue as we move towards an overall package that is acceptable to all."

Delegates from the 11 countries taking part in the 15th round of talks in Auckland did not give details of specific areas of agreement or disagreement.

The negotiations aimed at creating a free trade zone covering Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

Leaders of the 11 countries have said they would like to conclude a deal by the end of next year.
Round 16 will take place in Singapore from March 4-13.

US OPTIMISTIC

US Trade Representative Ron Kirk said he was optimistic a deal could be reached in the talks in 2013 although tough issues remained.

"It's a negotiation. It will be very difficult to close ... (but) we've done it before," Kirk said, referring to other trade pacts the United States has concluded.

US business groups had cast the Auckland round, coming so soon after President Barack Obama's re-election in November, as an opportunity for significant strides in the nearly three-year-old talks because US negotiators would have more freedom to deal with politically sensitive issues.

But one US business official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was less progress in Auckland than hoped on tough trade-offs needed for a deal.

That raises the stakes for the March round of negotiations, if countries are serious about a deal in 2013, the aide said.

The Asia-Pacific region contains many of the world's biggest and fastest-growing economies and its middle-class population is expected to swell to 1.75 billion people by 2020 from 525 million in 2009, according to one estimate.

With the centre of global economic activity moving increasingly to the east, US companies see the TPP pact as one way to avoid being shut out of fast-forming preferential trading arrangements in the region.

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But the United States is under pressure to open up sensitive sectors such as sugar, dairy, textiles and footwear to more imports in response to its demands for countries take on new commitments in areas like labour, the environment, intellectual property rights and state-owned enterprises.

Kirk, who is expected to step down soon as US trade representative, said finishing the talks next year was "stretch goal" but he felt confident it could be achieved.

"I think we can get it closed," he said in response to a question at Third Way, a policy think tank.

Kirk also said he believed it was important for Obama to have "trade promotion authority," which allows the White House to negotiate trade deals it can submit to Congress for straight up-and-down votes without any amendments.

He said the administration had begun "quiet conversations" with Congress about the authority, which many trade experts consider essential for the United States to persuade other countries to put their best offers on the table.

- BusinessDay.co.nz and Reuters

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