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US working on new Pacific trade accord, people say

(Earlier news on this development here)

Bloomberg | December 18, 2007

U.S. Working on New Pacific Trade Accord, People Say

By Mark Drajem

Dec. 18 (Bloomberg) — The Bush administration is preparing to negotiate an agreement linking the U.S., Chile, Singapore, Brunei and New Zealand in a Pacific-region accord to reduce barriers to trade and foreign investment, according to lobbyists briefed by the U.S. trade office.

Talks with the four nations will start as early as next month, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office has told lobbyists. The administration envisions the accord, which may be left to the next president to complete, as forming the core of a broader agreement among Pacific-rim nations, the lobbyists said.

``Senior officials are holding exploratory discussions,’’ said Stephen Norton, a spokesman for the trade office. ``We are consulting closely with many countries on possible paths toward Asia-Pacific regional integration.’’

While Congress earlier this month approved a trade agreement with Peru, lawmakers such as presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton are balking at similar accords with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Clinton, former Senator John Edwards and Republican candidate Mike Huckabee all pledge to rework U.S. trade policy if elected president next year.

Even so, the administration is pushing ahead with the new plan. Officials say that otherwise the U.S. will be left behind as Asian nations, led by China, put together their own agreements, cutting out American companies and exports. New Zealand and China are set to complete a free-trade agreement before April of next year, the New Zealand Herald reported yesterday.

Natural Partners

``If we go through a protracted period’’ without new trade agreements, ``others will move on without us,’’ said Monica Whaley, executive director of the National Center for APEC in Seattle, a group of companies that support trade with Asia and the Pacific region.

The new agreement would tap into an accord the four other nations completed in 2005 to eliminate tariffs and build upon free-trade agreements the U.S. previously worked out with Chile and Singapore.

Those four nations are already among the most open in the world and so are natural partners for the U.S., Whaley said.

The U.S. will initially try to negotiate rules governing foreign investment in areas such as express delivery, insurance and telecommunications, with the idea that the accord would expand and become a full regional free-trade agreement later, said two people familiar with the talks.

Once that deal is completed, other Asian or Pacific nations, such as Vietnam, Peru, Mexico or South Korea may be added, creating a larger trading bloc.

New Zealand Rebuffed

New Zealand tried to persuade the Bush administration to negotiate a free-trade agreement in 2003, when the U.S. was negotiating with Australia, New Zealand’s primary commercial partner. The U.S. rebuffed New Zealand as leaders of the two nations differed over the war in Iraq, and New Zealand refused to allow U.S. nuclear-powered ships to dock there. Diplomatic ties have improved recently.

``The last 18 months have shown a very strong upturn in the relationship,’’ said John Mullen, president of the United States- New Zealand Council in Washington. ``We hope the possibility of free-trade negotiations will be on the agenda for the near future.’’

 source: Bloomberg