NEW YORK -– Australia, Peru and Vietnam have expressed interest in joining a budding Asia-Pacific tariff-busting plan which received a boost Monday with the participation of the United States, officials said.
On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab announced the launching of negotiations for the United States to join a free trade agreement now confined to Singapore, New Zealand, Chile and Brunei.
The "Comprehensive Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership" agreement, the first trade pact involving a group of Pacific Rim countries, has a broad objective of tearing down trade barriers among participants within a decade.
The first round of negotiations for participation of the United States, which has already joined discussions to free up investment and financial services among the five, will be held early next year in Singapore.
"While the United States is the first additional country to seek to join the four original members of the (agreement), we are confident that other countries in the region will ultimately embrace the benefits of participation," Schwab told a news conference, with ministers from the four countries beside her.
"This high-standard regional agreement will enhance the competitiveness of the countries that are part of it and help promote and facilitate trade and investment among them, increasing their economic growth and development," she said.
She did not name the countries which had shown interest in joining the five nations but officials said they were Australia, Peru and Vietnam.
"I think Australia has shown considerable interest, Peru as well and there could be one or two other countries," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said.
"I know Vietnam is studying it very closely but they are aware that their economy is at a lower level and they would need certain phasing in accommodations," he said. "But I am hopeful other countries will also come around."
The US decision to join the agreement will give impetus to a long-term initiative within the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to forge a Free Trade Agreement of the Asia Pacific, officials said.
Aside from the United States, Australia, Singapore, Chile, New Zealand, Brunei, Vietnam and Peru, APEC consists of economies such China, Russia, Japan, Canada and other key Southeast Asian economies.
Economies in the APEC group, which has a loose objective of achieving free trade and investment in the Pacific Rim by 2020, account for nearly half of world trade.
Yeo indicated that some APEC members could even join the trans-Pacific agreement before the APEC summit in Peru in November, thus enabling them to participate with the five in the Singapore negotiations.
Under the agreement, tariffs on all trade products are eliminated within 12 years, with tariffs on 90 percent of trade in goods among the parties eliminated immediately, a Singapore government statement said.
New Zealand Trade Minister Phil Goff hailed the US participation in the agreement as significant, saying it was the "most powerful and the largest economy in the world and gives the partnership critical mass and momentum to move forward."
He signaled that frustrations following continuous failure to hammer out a World Trade Organization deal to free up global commerce would draw greater support for the agreement.
"Given the frustrations that we have sometimes found in international trade negotiations, this is a negotiation from countries that want to make good progress and move forward and other countries starting in the APEC region will look at this agreement and believe that this is something that they cannot afford to remain outside," Goff said.
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