Officials from eight nations including the United States began talks on a transpacific trade deal on Monday in a move Australia said could add momentum to stalled World Trade Organization talks.
President Barack Obama, who aims to double U.S. exports in five years, hopes to shore up the U.S. economic position in Asia by joining an expanded Trans Pacific Partnership pact, which he says will also create much needed jobs in the United States.
The United States, Australia, Peru and Vietnam are seeking to join the Trans Pacific Partnership, which already includes Chile, Singapore, New Zealand and Brunei.
The Trans Pacific Partnership aims to push members of broader the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) groups of nations toward a long-term goal of an Asia-Pacific free trade zone.
This is a very significant potential trade negotiation. It has the basis for being the bridge to a free trade area for the Asia Pacific, Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean said on Monday, adding the talks added momentum to the Doha WTO round.
The eight nations in talks cover 470 million people with a combined GDP of $16 trillion. The first of four rounds of talks set for 2010 will cover tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, e-commerce, services and intellectual property rights.
Obama, facing a revolt among Democrats who believe past trade agreements cost millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, says the TPP, his first trade initiative, will offer stronger protection for U.S. workers and the environment than previous pacts.
The U.S. priorities in the TPP include promoting clean energy and other emerging economic sectors, gaining new exports for its manufacturers, farmers and service providers and boosting protections for U.S. intellectual property rights.
An East Asia Free Trade Area without the United States could cost U.S. companies at least $25 billion in annual exports, or about 200,000 high-paying jobs, says The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
Obama wants to create 2 million new jobs by deepening U.S. engagement with major emerging markets such as China, India, Brazil and the Asia-Pacific.
DOHA AGREEMENT CRUCIAL
Australia is also currently negotiating free trade agreements with China and Japan, it's top two trading partners, and began a new round of talks on Monday with South Korea, its third largest export market.
Crean said despite these negotiations, a successful outcome to the Doha round of global trade talks was still the best way to free up world trade.
I certainly haven't given up on Doha. Doha in many ways still holds the best and quickest approach to trade liberalization in the short term, if we can find the political will, Crean told reporters in Canberra. Doha will give that stimulus, without impact on respective budgets.
The WTO's Doha round was launched in the Qatari capital in late 2001 with the aim of freeing up world trade and helping poor countries prosper by opening up markets and cutting trade barriers in rich countries.
But the 153-nation talks stalled in 2008 over a dispute between the United States and Europe, and China and Brazil, on protection for farmers in rich countries and barriers to industrial goods from developing nations.
(Editing by Michael Perry and Alex Richardson)