Pacific trade negotiators target "sensitive issues,' US says

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Negotiators seeking a trade accord among nine Pacific nations will try to resolve the most sensitive issues over the next two months after progress this week on less divisive matters, a US trade official said.

The US is preparing suggestions for labor-rights protections, an issue that stalled ratification of a pending free-trade agreement with Colombia, and will continue work on access for products and services in different markets, Barbara Weisel, who led delegates to this week's eighth round of talks in Chicago, told reporters on Wednesday. The US will also propose rules for state-owned enterprises, she said.

"Issues that could be easily dispatched have been dispatched," Weisel, an assistant US Trade Representative, said. "Issues that are more sensitive are now coming to the fore."

Vietnam is "keen to have a fruitful discussion" on worker protections in a Pacific pact, said Tran Quoc Khanh, that nation's lead negotiator.

Nations joining the US in the Pacific-trade discussions are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

US companies would like to see the negotiations completed next year so they can accelerate pursuit of customers in new markets, said Calman Cohen, president of the Washington-based Emergency Committee for American Trade, a business organization whose members include Citigroup Inc., General Motors Co. and Target Corp.

The Pacific partnership, if successful, may eventually expand to include Japan and China, Cohen said.

Doubling exports

"We see it as potentially becoming a template for a free- trade area for all countries in the Asia-Pacific," he said in an interview.

The talks give President Barack Obama a chance to forge his first trade accord. He's working to win congressional approval for deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama. All three were signed during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush. Obama has pledged to double US exports by 2015.

US trade with the eight nations that rim the Pacific totaled $170 billion last year, according to the US Commerce Department. A deal would be the largest for the US since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

This week's goal was making progress toward broad outlines for the accord before an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting set for November in Honolulu.

Customs, telecommunications

Aspects of the negotiations moving toward consensus include customs, technical barriers to trade, telecommunications, government procurement, rules for small- and medium-sized enterprises, regulatory coherence, competitiveness and development, according to a statement from the US Trade Tepresentative's office.

Investment rules and intellectual property protections need more work, Weisel said.

The US already has free-trade agreements with four nations involved in the Pacific talks -- Australia, Chile, Peru and Singapore -- and the Obama administration isn't seeking to renegotiate market access in those pacts, she said.

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