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U.S., partners set target for TransPacific trade deal

By Doug Palmer

BIG SKY, Montana (Reuters) - The United States and eight other Asia Pacific countries agreed on Thursday to strive for the "broad outlines" of a free trade pact by the time President Barack Obama hosts a regional summit in Hawaii in November.

The proposed TransPacific Partnership pact would be the first entirely new trade agreement the Obama administration has negotiated since taking office.

"We would absolutely love to see it (completely) done this year, but we aren't going to set any artificial deadlines," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in an interview at a meeting of trade ministers from the 21 members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

However, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Chile and Peru did agree in a joint statement to push for "the broad outlines of an agreement by November."

Kirk said the TPP countries were aiming for a high-standard "21st century agreement" that could be expanded to all APEC members, a diverse group that also includes China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Mexico, Canada, Indonesia and Taiwan.

Together the APEC region accounts for about 54 percent of world economic growth and 44 percent of world trade.

The TPP talks are largely motivated by concerns the region is rapidly organizing itself around China's economic engine, putting U.S. companies at a disadvantage.

In addition to traditional talks on reducing agricultural and manufactured goods tariffs, TPP negotiators are examining ways to free up global supply chains by reducing regulatory barriers to trade.

Other goals are to open new trade opportunities for small and medium-sized companies and to incorporate high labor and environmental standards into the pact.

Kirk resisted predicting when a final TPP deal could be reached. "We recognize we will need at least one more round in December and have informally set up a structure that will allow us to have additional rounds next year if needed," he said.

U.S. business executives hailed the November deadline for a TPP framework agreement.

'MUCH-NEEDED BOOST'

"The early conclusion of these negotiations will provide a much-needed boost to the U.S. economy, as it continues to recover from the recession," said Sarah Thorn, director of federal government relations for U.S.-based retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Negotiators will have to grapple with a number of difficult issues to meet the November deadline, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis said in an interview.

"There's going to be challenges. It's a hard negotiation and it's complex because we're dealing with new issues we haven't dealt with before in trade agreements," he said.

For its host year of APEC, the United States has set broad goals promoting green growth, reducing regulatory barriers and expanding trade opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprise through the 21-economy grouping.

White House international economic affairs adviser Michael Froman said discussions ahead of the trade ministers meeting showed a "wide range of views" on how to meet a goal set by leaders last year of reducing barriers to trade in environmental goods and services.

Kirk said he expected APEC trade ministers on Friday to direct negotiators to keep working on an action plan that would deliver concrete results for leaders to announce in Hawaii.

"There are some of us that want to move more aggressively and see if we can find a way to reduce tariffs and address non-tariff barriers on a limited number of products. There are others that want to go slower and see if we can't get convergence on some other issues," he said.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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