By Rosalba O'Brien and Antonio De la Jara
VINA DEL MAR, Chile, March 14 (Reuters) - The Latin American free trade area known as the Pacific Alliance has agreed a new category of "associate member," it said on Tuesday, as it seeks to increase its reach and show it is serious about its message of fighting protectionist trends.
The Pacific Alliance is currently comprised of four countries that are among the region's keenest advocates of free trade - Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico. As well as reducing trade barriers, the bloc has sought to integrate in other areas, such as financial markets and free movement of people.
There are 49 "observer" nations that follow what the pact does. Some of those have expressed an interest in forming closer ties with the bloc, and an associate membership could provide an alternative or a stepping-stone to full membership, officials said.
"We will look to identify countries that we think are those with which we are going to finalize high-quality free-trade deals in the short term," said Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz to journalists after a ministerial meeting of the pact.
"This is a step that we think is a powerful signal, at a time when there is uncertainty over the paths to follow."
The announcement comes as a meeting gets underway in the Chilean coastal city of Vina del Mar of ministers and officials representing the 12 countries of the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), plus China and South Korea.
Officials have said that any concrete decision on how a new Asia-Pacific trade pact might look will likely be some time off. After years of negotiations, the TPP was effectively killed off in its current form after the United States withdrew.
Panama and Costa Rica have previously expressed interest in joining the Pacific Alliance, while countries outside Latin America such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia will likely be interested in an associate membership for the trade benefits, officials said.
(Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Leslie Adler)