KAPOLEI, Hawaii (AP) -- A U.S.-backed initiative to forge a Pacific free trade bloc got a big boost Sunday when leaders of Canada and Mexico said their countries are interested in joining.
The news was a coup for President Barack Obama, who had made progress on the pact one of his top priorities for the annual summit of Asia-Pacific leaders being held in his home state of Hawaii. It comes after Japan, the world's third-biggest economy, said it would join the nine nations already involved in talks on what has been dubbed the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The balmy weather for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering at a resort on the west side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu contrasted with deepening pessimism over the economic outlook as the leaders sat down for a day of talks on how to spur growth and create jobs. With Europe again on the brink of recession, Asia's vital role as a driver of global growth has gained even greater urgency.
"Now its time to get down to work, and we have much to do," President Barack Obama said in opening the meeting. "Our 21 economies — our nearly 3 billion citizens — are looking to us to bring our economies closer, to increase exports, to expand trade and opportunity that creates jobs and economic growth. That's why we're here."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his country must look to the East to ensure markets, especially for its energy exports. "That will be an important priority of this government," Harper said before meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the 21-member APEC summit.
The U.S. Trade Representative, Ron Kirk, welcomed the overtures from Canada and Mexico, calling them America's "neighbors and largest export markets."
Obama has said he is optimistic that work on the American-backed trade pact could result in a legal framework by next year.
For the U.S., the initiative is seen as a way to break through bottlenecks and open new business opportunities. Many in APEC see the emerging deal as a building block for a free trade area that eventually encompasses all of Asia and the Pacific — covering half the world's commerce and two-fifths of its trade.
"The Asia Pacific region is absolutely critical to America's economic growth. We consider it a top priority. And we consider it a top priority because we're not going to be able to put our folks back to work and grow our economy and expand opportunity unless the Asia Pacific region is also successful," he told his fellow APEC leaders at Sunday's meeting.
Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an influential business lobbying group, praised the Pacific trade initiative.
"An important step to unlocking global economic growth will be expanding trade in the Asia-Pacific, and the TPP holds this key," Donohue said. He urged the group to move quickly in drawing up a timeline that is "comprehensive, enforceable, and makes room for new entrants."
The pact now includes only four smaller, relatively affluent economies — Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore — but the U.S., Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru are negotiating to join.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Erica Werner and Jaymes Song contributed to this report.