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Government sees Pacific trade pact talks taking time

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman talk prior to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation mini
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman talk prior to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation mini

By Sui-Lee Wee

BEIJING (Reuters) - Negotiations on a trade pact between a dozen countries around the Pacific Rim will take whatever time they need as the deal has to be both ambitious and comprehensive, U.S. trade representative Michael Froman said on Saturday.

The U.S.-backed deal, which Washington had wanted to conclude this year, aims to establish a free-trade bloc stretching from Vietnam to Chile and Japan, encompassing about 800 million people and almost 40 percent of the global economy.

But differences over farm tariffs between the United States and Japan have proved to be one of the major roadblocks and it will now not be finalized this year.

"I think we're focused on trying to reach agreement among the 12 countries as soon as possible, but based on it being an ambitious, comprehensive, high-standard agreement and we'll take whatever time is necessary to do that, letting the substance of the negotiations dictate the timetable," Froman told Reuters.

"There are a number of outstanding issues including state owned enterprises, intellectual property rights, the environment, labor," he said in Beijing, where he was visiting for annual China-U.S. trade talks.

"These are all issues that we've been devoting a lot of attention to over the last four months to make sure that we come out with an ambitious outcome," Froman said, adding there was no date or venue yet for the next round of talks.

More far-reaching than other deals, the TPP pact is aimed at going beyond tariffs on physical trade and it will try to regulate sensitive areas such as government procurement and give companies more rights to sue.

One problem area is the United States and Japan's disagreement over Japan's long-stated aims to exempt five sensitive farm products - rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar - from the scrapping of tariffs.

The two countries held talks during a four-day TPP meeting in Singapore this month on the issue but have not come to any agreement.

The TPP negotiations, which have run for three years, have been mired in controversy over a lack of transparency, and slowed by the conflicting interests of the negotiating countries, U.S. lawmakers and advocacy groups.

The full list of those already in the talks is the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Chile, Mexico and Peru.

China said in May that it would study the possibility of joining the talks, but has said little about it since.

Asked whether China could realistically join the TPP in the near future, Froman said the United States and China had other issues on their plate.

"I think the near term focus ought to be on addressing the wide range of outstanding bilateral issues we have and exploring the bilateral investment treaty as the next natural step in the relationship," he said.

The United States and China agreed in July to restart stalled negotiations on an investment treaty, with Beijing dropping previous efforts to protect certain sectors of its economy from the start.

(Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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