U.S. commerce chief praises TPP interest


U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke welcomed Japan’s decision Wednesday to launch talks with other countries to study a trans-Pacific free-trade agreement.

“We are pleased that Japan is expressing an interest in taking steps that could lead to the participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” said Locke, in Tokyo to attend events linked to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that kicked off Sunday in Yokohama.

The predecessor of the TPP was initiated in 2005 by Singapore, Brunei, Chile and New Zealand, and this year, the U.S. and several other nations seek to expand the pact. All nine countries involved in the TPP talks are APEC members.

Locke said he hoped negotiations would be over in about a year, when the U.S. is set to host the next APEC forum.

“I think we’d like to try to have a conclusion in a very short period of time . . . perhaps within a year or so,” Locke said. “The TPP is setting very high standards and hopefully we’ll be a model for future trade agreements all around the world.”

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has expressed his interest in joining the TPP negotiations, but the government has stopped short of officially declaring its intention to participate in the talks after facing strong opposition from ruling coalition lawmakers and farmers. Locke said it was up to Japan to decide whether it wants to join, but added the TPP would remove trade barriers and create jobs.

“The objectives of the TPP are to try to remove access barriers, and that would enable the economies of the participating countries to sell more to each other and engage in mutually beneficial trade that could create jobs for people among all of the participating countries,” Locke said.

He added the U.S. was scrutinizing China over its rare earth export curbs. Beijing currently controls 97 percent of rare earth materials to the world, but Locke noted there are other areas around the world, including the U.S., that could be suppliers as well.

“We believe that the market should not be constrained and so I do believe that right now, while China is a major supplier of rare earths, there is actually a great deal of capacity elsewhere around the world, including the United States,” he said. “We need to make sure that those other sources are able to be developed and so that no one is . . . overly reliant on rare earths from any one particular country.”