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US: Won't rush into Pacific trade pact

Matthew Pennington, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration said Friday it won't sacrifice the quality of a proposed trans-Pacific trade pact in the drive to complete negotiations by year's end.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is the key plank of a U.S. effort to boost exports to the fast-growing economies of the Asia-Pacific.

U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman spoke to reporters by phone after TPP trade ministers met in Brunei for the 19th round of negotiations.

Froman said the aim remains to complete negotiations by the end of 2013. But he added: "We are not rushing into an agreement to meet any particular deadline."

The negotiations have been underway for more than 2 1/2 years and are said to be in their final stages, although with much yet to be settled before leaders of the 12 nations meet in Bali, Indonesia, in October.

Froman said that summit would be an "important milestone" and an opportunity for the leaders to address "potentially outstanding issues" — suggesting the agreement may not be completed by then.

The TPP has been billed as a "21st century" trade agreement: an attempt not just to slash tariffs but tackle nontariff barriers to trade, while protecting labor rights. The participants account for 40 percent of world trade. They are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States and Vietnam.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country's biggest business advocacy group, said Friday it's less concerned by the timetable for finalizing the pact than its substance.

Tami Overby, the chamber's vice president for Asia, said the TPP would provide the template for regional free trade for decades to come and it needs to address unfair competition from state-owned enterprises and protect intellectual property rights.

Complex hurdles remain both in striking agreement among the 12 nations and for individual governments in convincing citizens and businesses the TPP is in their national interest.

Japan, which only formally joined the negotiations in July, is under pressure from the U.S. to open up its auto and insurance markets. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, faces stiff domestic opposition, including from Japanese farmers who fear that foreign imports could drive them out of business.

Malaysia's government last week announced it was initiating cost-benefit studies on the impact the TPP on its companies and said it would not be bound by a fixed timeline on negotiations.

While there's bipartisan support in Congress for the TPP, there's American dissent, too. Labor groups fear job losses; digital rights activists say the TPP's provisions could compromise online privacy.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Friday accused the Obama administration of bowing to pressure from the tobacco industry by proposing a provision in the TPP that he contended could challenge countries' tobacco-control measures. Bloomberg wrote in The New York Times that would be "a colossal public health mistake and potentially contribute to the deaths of tens of millions of people around the world."

Froman defended the proposal, saying it addresses public health concerns.