SAN DIEGO (AP) – Negotiators from the United States and eight other Pacific Rim countries concluded a round of talks Tuesday on one of the most ambitious trade agreements in decades, as pressure mounted on Japan to decide if it wants to join Mexico and Canada as the newest members of the pact.
The administration of President Barack Obama notified Congress this week that Mexico and Canada were joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, triggering a 90-day waiting period before those two countries can enter talks later this year.
Japan expressed interest last year in joining the pan-Pacific pact, which would slash import tariffs on a wide range of goods and services. But it was unclear if Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has enough domestic support to make the move.
“We are all awaiting information from Japan as to whether it has made a decision,” Barbara Weisel, chief U.S. negotiator, said at a news conference as the 13th round of talks ended in San Diego.
Tran Quoc Khanh, Vietnam’s negotiator, was more pointed in his remarks, saying he hoped Japan would decide by the end of August.
“I think, logically, we would like Japan to be together with Canada and Mexico so there will not be another delay in the negotiations,” he said.
The pact promises to sharply increase trade in the Pacific Rim, with the notable exception of China. It has met stiff opposition in the U.S. Congress, largely from Democrats and allies of organized labor who complain the talks have been shrouded in secrecy.
Along with the U.S., the talks now include Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Obama previously said he was optimistic a trade agreement would be reached this year, but that was before Mexico and Canada were slated to join. The United States has been involved in the negotiations for about three years.
Negotiators made significant progress in San Diego in areas including telecommunications, government procurement and competition policy, Weisel said. They also found potential compromises on intellectual property rights, a highly sensitive topic among advocates of copyright protections and others who worry about limits on Internet use.
The 14th round of talks is scheduled in September in Leesburg, Va.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said recently that U.S. companies and trade groups were getting more access to the process than members of Congress.
U.S. officials insist they have been as open as they have ever been on a trade agreement.
The negotiations come after efforts stalled on the Doha talks that were launched in Qatar’s capital in 2001 with the intention of boosting global trade. Brazil, China and the United States were split on key issues.
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