U.S. cites progress in talks on Pacific trade treaty

The U.S. says that important progress has been achieved during the latest round of talks aimed at crafting a wide-ranging trade pact with eight other Pacific nations.

The countries concluded their 13th round of negotiations Tuesday in the western U.S. city of San Diego. U.S. trade officials said particularly significant progress was made on dealing with customs regulations, cross-border services, telecommunications and government purchases.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership scheduled another negotiating session in September outside Washington, with Canada and Mexico slated to join the talks in coming months. Besides the U.S., the partnership now includes Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

The office of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the talks advanced in 20 areas of negotiation. U.S. President Barack Obama has said that a pact with the Pacific nations is a trade priority, which he sees as a way to cut into the U.S. trade deficit and boost the country’s labor market.

One trade expert, Gary Hufbauer of the nonpartisan Petersen Institute for International Economics in Washington, said that after three years of talks, officials had hoped to wrap up an agreement this year. Although that timetable now seems unrealistic, he said an agreement could be reached next year and ratified in 2014.

“Other countries want us to liberalize some agricultural products, which have long not been liberalized: dairy products, sugar, beef,” he said, adding that the U.S. is also being asked to liberalize barriers on clothing, textiles, and footwear. “They also want us to liberalize services which have not been liberalized, government procurement of services like contracts for data-processing, and so on.”

Hufbauer said the U.S. is not alone in having to confront difficult issues on specific products, and that tough negotiations remain.

The outcome of the upcoming presidential election between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, he added, is unlikely to make much difference in the outcome of the talks, as both candidates have said they favor the new trade pact.

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