BEIJING: A China-backed vision for Asia-Pacific free trade is only a “long-term aspiration,” a top US commerce official said Sunday, stressing that Washington remains focused on its own plans for a regional trade agreement.
US Trade Representative Michael Froman said the proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) touted by China is “not the launch of a new organization, it’s not the launch of a new FTA (free trade area).”
“It’s a reaffirmation of a long-term aspiration for the region that’s to be achieved through other ongoing negotiations,” he told reporters.
China has thrown its support behind the FTAAP idea in the lead-up to a regional summit hosted by Beijing, while the United States is pursuing a deal for its 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excludes China.
Some Chinese analysts and official media have cast the TPP as an attempt to balance China’s stunning economic and diplomatic rise.
A draft final communique of the Beijing-hosted summit prominently mentions the importance of FTAAP.
But Froman said the TPP remained Washington’s priority and that it would serve as a “building block” for the longer-term FTAAP.
“TPP of course is the major focus of our economic pillar of the rebalance to this region,” he said, referring to the Obama administration’s stated intention to give greater attention to the Asia-Pacific area.
“And we certainly view TPP as our contribution to expanding trade and integrating the region,” he said on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc.
The TPP discussions, however, have run into snags amid resistance by some prospective members —notably Japan—to opening domestic markets too widely.
Officials once voiced hopes of concluding a deal by the end of last year, but secretive negotiations have dragged on.
Froman said recent talks have made “very significant progress,” but he refused to be drawn on a timetable for completing the process.
As for specific talks with Japan, Froman said: “We have made progress at each one of these sessions but we’re not there yet; we’re not at a solution yet.”
The draft APEC summit communique calls for steps to be taken to “translate the FTAAP from a vision to reality”, and agrees to launch a “strategic study.”
But it avoided China’s calls for a “feasibility study”, which would have signified a faster track for the concept.
It also makes no mention of a 2025 target date for realizing the FTAAP, which had been floated earlier.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post on Saturday quoted unnamed Chinese and US officials as saying Beijing had backed down on the wording after Washington objected.
China is using the summit as an opportunity to underline its growing clout, a trend that has frequently put it at odds with Washington on trade and other issues.