“I’m confident we can get this done,” Obama said while seated beside leaders of eight other nations involved in negotiations toward setting up what has been dubbed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The leaders are in Hawaii for this weekend’s annual Asia-Pacific economic summit.
Obama said the trade zone can serve as a model for the region and for other trade pacts, increasing U.S. exports and helping to create jobs, a top priority, in the fastest growing region in the world.
Much of the work by Obama and other leaders at the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is aimed at fending off recession as Europe struggles to resolve its debt crisis.
“We have an enormous responsibility for supporting the wider world, a responsibility that no one nation could seek to carry alone — it can only be borne if we stand shoulder-to-shoulder,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in remarks to be delivered later Saturday at the East West Center, a Honolulu think tank.
Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, has also signaled it is interested in joining the negotiations, and the Obama administration hopes other nations will be wooed as well. But China, which some economists say is on course to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy this decade, has been lukewarm about the Pacific trade pact.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk ended a meeting of regional trade ministers Friday with praise for Japan’s decision to join the negotiations on the U.S.-backed free trade arrangement that is viewed by many in the region as a basic building block for an eventual free trade zone encompassing all of Asia and the Pacific Rim.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is intended to complement other efforts to promote freer trade, and other countries can join if they are willing to meet the very high standards required, Kirk said.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation agenda has gained urgency with warnings from the European Union that its debt crisis could trigger a “deep and prolonged recession” next year. Such a recession would be felt sharply in the U.S., where growth is already anemic, and in Asia, which relies on Europe as a big market for its cars, clothing, consumer electronics and other exports.
Kirk said the ministers expect leaders of the countries involved in the TPP to announce the broad outlines of a “high-standards, ambitious 21st-century trade pact.”
“Of course, many of us believe that the Trans-Pacific Partnership can be the basis for a long-term APEC goal of a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.
At their summit, the leaders of the 21-member APEC forum also will endorse a range of “meaningful steps which will strengthen regional economic integration and expand trade,” he said.
Such strategies include better food security, increased trade and investment in environmental products and services, better access to financing for small and medium-size companies, faster customs clearance and greater harmony in regulatory standards.
The aim is to make it “cheaper, faster, and easier to do business in the APEC region,” according to a statement released by the ministers.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the ministerial meeting that by agreeing on something as rudimentary as shared safety standards for televisions, countries in the region saw exports of TVs jump by nearly half in three years.
By removing barriers and bottlenecks that slow business, APEC members hope to re-energize growth at a time when the world economy most needs dynamism in the Asia-Pacific region to offset the malaise spreading from crisis-stricken Europe. At the same time they are working toward a broader agreement, countries are continuing to forge separate free-trade deals.
Overall, given APEC’s lack of negotiating power — all decisions are by consensus — prospects for major changes are slim. But over the years the group’s incremental efforts have helped build support for closer economic ties and freer trade.
The U.S. recently clinched long-sought free trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama — agreements that if ratified will bring to 20 the number of countries that have free trade agreements with the U.S.
On Friday, Vietnam and Chile signed a free trade agreement on the sidelines of the APEC meetings that will further boost the already thriving trade between the two in Chilean copper and steel and Vietnamese garments, rice and coffee.