LEESBURG, Virginia (Reuters) - Talks on a free trade pact between the United States and soon-to-be 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region made good progress this week, but have no deadline for resolving the many difficult issues that lie ahead, negotiators said.
"We are continuing to focus on concluding this agreement as quickly as we can," chief U.S. negotiator for the talks Barbara Weisel said at the end of the 14th round of negotiations on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership pact
"We think there is momentum coming out of this meeting that gives us hope that we can move toward conclusion of the agreement," Weisel added.
The United States and currently eight other countries - Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei - have been negotiating the proposed TPP agreement for 30 months, or since March 2010.
Countries have not set any formal deadline for finishing the talks, but 2013 should be a "pivotal year," Weisel said.
The aim is to create a high-standard pact that tears down traditional barriers to trade and tackles difficult new areas like facilitating cross-border data flows and establishing rules for "state-owned enterprises" that compete with private companies in the Asia-Pacific region.
Critics fear patent and copyright provisions of the agreement could boost the cost of medicines and restrict Internet freedom, while anti-smoking advocates worry it will create a new forum for tobacco companies to aggressively challenge government efforts to curb smoking.
'ASEAN PLUS SIX' TALKS
Canada and Mexico were recently accepted into the TPP negotiations and will take part in the 15th round of talks set for December in Auckland, New Zealand. Meanwhile, current TPP members continue to consult with Japan on its interest in joining the talks with no decision yet in sight.
Some TPP members - Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei - plan to launch a separate set of regional trade talks in November.
Those "ASEAN plus six" negotiations include the 10 members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Weisel said she was not concerned the effort would sap energy from the TPP talks, saying the United States is "supportive of agreements that seek the goal of liberalization and think that they can co-exist."
Singaporean negotiator Ng Bee Kim also downplayed the suggestion of a rivalry between the two negotiations.
"This is a complementary effort towards the common goal of ... integration in the region and certainly will only strengthen our commitment to push as hard and as quickly as possible on concluding the TPP," she said.
TOUGH DECISIONS AHEAD
Negotiators said the TPP talks were beginning to focus on more politically sensitive issues that will require governments to make tough decisions to reach a final deal.
Sugar is one difficult sector for the United States because U.S. sugar farmers fiercely defend any attack on their government program and have political clout in Florida, a battleground state in November's presidential election.
Weisel declined comment when asked if Washington has already told Australia not to expect to additional opportunities to export sugar to the United States under the pact, as U.S. industry officials have said.
Australian negotiator Hamish McCormick also would not comment on what U.S. officials have said regarding sugar.
But all TPP countries want to "address any restrictions that apply to their exports and I think that's the basis for which we're trying to move forward," he said.
Meanwhile, Vietnam and Malaysia are under U.S. pressure in the talks to agree to rules governing the operations of state-owned enterprises prevalent in their economies.
Vietnamese negotiator Tran Quoc Khanh said his country already has a "very big and transparent program to restructure our state-owned enterprises," but is prepared to discuss concerns if others provide "proof that there is a real need."
Hanoi also believes "you don't fix an alleged unfair treatment ... by creating another unfair trade treatment toward state-owned enterprises," and that any new rules must take into account the various types of state-owned enterprises and the development needs of countries, he said.
Malaysian negotiator J. Jayasiri said most of his country's state-owned enterprises perform a public service and many already operate on the basis of commercial considerations.
Proposed rules in the TPP talks on state-owned enterprises are "quite far-reaching and have implications which would require serious revamps of our system," he said.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer)
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