US pushes for TPP trade agenda despite shutdown

BALI, Indonesia (AP) — Talks on a trans-Pacific trade pact are forging ahead with hopes of meeting a year-end deadline, officials said Saturday, despite President Barack Obama’s absence due to the government shutdown.

Obama had intended to thrash out issues with leaders of the 11 other trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, member countries on the sidelines of the Asian-Pacific regional summit in Bali on Monday and Tuesday.

Instead he ended up shelving the trip to focus on resolving the standoff over funding the U.S. government.

“I do want to make clear none of what is happening in Washington diminishes by one iota our commitment to our partners in Asia, including our efforts to promote trade and investment throughout the region,” Secretary of State John Kerry, who is standing in for Obama, said Saturday.

Both Kerry and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said Saturday that ministers were determined to put together a framework for the U.S.-led TPP, a trading bloc that Obama considers a vital part of the “rebalancing” of U.S. strategy toward Asia.

“The TPP countries are strongly committed to working to conclude negotiations this year,” Froman said.

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. Participants, which account for 40 percent of world trade, include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

Complex hurdles remain both in reaching consensus among the 12 nations and in persuading citizens and businesses in each country that 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.

Despite bipartisan support for the TPP in Congress, labor groups fear job losses, while digital rights activists say the ambitious standards likely to be required could compromise online privacy.

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