MELBOURNE (AFP) – The United States and seven other countries began "very significant" talks in Australia Monday on a pact that could be the first step towards a sweeping Asia-Pacific free-trade zone.
Officials from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Chile, Brunei, Peru and Vietnam are also taking part in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in Melbourne, which may eventually include China, Japan and South Korea.
|(AFP file) Cargo ships are anchored at a container port in Singapore.|
"This is a very significant potential trade negotiation," Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean told reporters in Canberra.
"It has the basis for being the bridge to a free trade area for the Asia Pacific," he said.
The nations involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks are home to 470 million people and have a combined GDP of 16.2 trillion US dollars.
Despite potential points of conflict in areas such as textiles, agriculture, dairy and intellectual property, Crean said "everything is on the table".
"That's what we mean by a comprehensive approach, a new approach to this Trans-Pacific Partnership. No exclusions," he said.
The negotiations are seen as an opportunity for the United States to pursue greater engagement in Asia under President Barack Obama, who is due to visit Australia next week.
"The participation of the US is an important signal of the Obama administration's commitment to the region, and an encouraging sign of broader US engagement on trade policy issues," Crean said.
New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key said the talks would potentially provide not only better access to the United States market but "pave the way for a potentially bigger prize -- a free trade area for the entire Asia Pacific region".
A pact between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the world's biggest free-trade area in terms of population, went into effect earlier this year.
There are also efforts to form a larger, all-Asian free-trade zone spanning China, Japan, South Korea and the 10 ASEAN states.