John Kerry pushes Asia trade pact in Singapore

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Tuesday for countries negotiating a major Pacific Rim trade deal to overcome differences that have stalled its conclusion.

Trans Pacific Partnership deal aims to erase tariffs and other trade barriers among participants

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers his speech on "America and the Asia-Pacific: Partners in Prosperity" at Singapore Management University on Tuesday. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Tuesday for countries negotiating a major Pacific Rim trade deal to overcome differences that have stalled its conclusion.

Speaking in Singapore, Kerry said the so-called "Trans Pacific Partnership" would benefit the people of all nations involved and serve as a model for responsible global industry and commerce. His address at Singapore Management University comes just days after trade ministers failed to bridge final gaps and seal the accord at talks in Hawaii.

Kerry acknowledged the difficulties in finalizing the deal, but said its completion would mark a major milestone for the international economy. The countries involved in the talks represent about 40 per cent of the global economy.

"As with any complex negotiation ... there remain details to be hashed out, but the reasons why each of the TPP countries is pressing on to work through tough negotiations or even some of the most sensitive areas of the negotiations are very, very clear," Kerry said, touting the agreement as one which would improve working conditions and wages, raise environmental standards, combat corruption and protect intellectual property rights.

"Because major economies are committing to TPP's high standards, its influence will be felt not just in the region but beyond," he said. "It will send a message to people within the TPP and outside of support for good governance, transparency, and accountability."

Economic counterweight to China

The TPP is a central element of the Obama administration's efforts to boost U.S. influence in Asia and to serve as an economic counterweight to China.

The negotiations, which failed Thursday at the talks in Hawaii, are aimed at erasing most tariffs and other barriers to trade and investment among participants. It would also clarify and standardize trade rules, making it easier for companies to sell goods and services in the Pacific Rim. The talks have addressed tariffs on autos, rice and dairy products, as well as intellectual property protections for pharmaceuticals.

But critics have complained that the deal is being negotiated in secret and that it favours multinational corporations over workers and consumers.

The agreement was proposed by Chile, New Zealand and Singapore in 2002, but Washington has taken the lead in promoting it since joining the talks in 2008. Participants include the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

To complement the eventual trade deal, Kerry also called for additional efforts to promote sustainable energy, and to combat climate change, which he said threatens the world's prosperity.

"Climate change is a danger to us all, but it is also an opportunity for us all to make the right choices," he said.

From Singapore, Kerry travels to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, later Tuesday to participate in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' annual security forum at which China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea will be a major focus, despite Chinese objections.

Maritime disputes will be major topic

Earlier Monday, Filipino Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said the United States and the Philippines will call for a stop to island-building work, military deployments and other aggressive actions that raise tensions in the sea.

As they have for several years, tensions between China and its smaller neighbours, including the Philippines, over maritime disputes will be a major topic of discussion. The U.S. takes no position in the disputes but wants them settled amicably and says it has a national security interest in maintaining stability in the region.

China and five other claimants have competing claims to all or part of the South China Sea, home to rich fishing grounds, potentially significant mineral reserves and some of the world's most crucial shipping lanes. China has been on an island-building spree in the disputed waters that has rattled its neighbours and strained relations between Washington and Beijing.

U.S. officials say the meeting in Kuala Lumpur will be an opportunity for the Chinese to hear from many of the 10 ASEAN members, as well as Kerry, about the need for restraint.

"There's a broad consensus on the need to tap the brakes, so to speak, when it comes to exploitation or reclamation of the land features in the South China Sea," one official said. "This is a forum where the Chinese will hear for themselves what their neighbours and their foreign partners think about both their activities and about their actions."

Last week, China's Defense Ministry accused the U.S. of militarizing the South China Sea as Beijing makes increasingly bold moves to assert its claim to virtually all of the sea's waters, islands and reefs.

The rejoinder was prompted by comments critical of the island building by the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, who warned that such work undermines international norms that have long governed the global economy and political order.

The Defense Ministry said U.S. close-in reconnaissance of Chinese armed forces, frequent military exercises and strengthened military alliances with the Philippines and other nations are raising tensions and creating risks of incidents in the air and at sea.


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