Obama: Hoping for Pacific free trade plan by 2012

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HONOLULU — Pacific Rim leaders gathered for an annual summit in Hawaii pledged Saturday to work together to keep world growth on track, as President Barack Obama announced the broad outlines of a plan he said could serve as a model for a trans-Pacific free trade zone.

“There are still plenty of details to work out, but we are confident that we can do so. So we’ve directed our teams to finalize this agreement in the coming year,” Obama said while seated beside leaders of eight other nations involved in setting up what has been dubbed the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“It is an ambitious goal, but we are optimistic that we can get it done,” he said.

The trade zone can serve as a model for the region and for other trade pacts, increasing U.S. exports and helping to create jobs in the fastest growing region in the world, said Obama, who made promoting the so-called TPP a priority in hosting this week’s summit in his hometown, Honolulu.

Much of the work by Obama and other leaders at the summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is aimed at fostering freer trade and closer cooperation to help fend off recession as Europe struggles to resolve its debt crisis.

“We have an enormous responsibility for supporting the wider world, a responsibility that no one nation could seek to carry alone — it can only be borne if we stand shoulder-to-shoulder,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in remarks to be delivered later Saturday at the East West Center, a Honolulu think tank.

By removing barriers and bottlenecks that slow business, APEC members hope to re-energize growth at a time when the world economy most needs dynamism in the Asia-Pacific region to offset the malaise spreading from crisis-stricken Europe.

The outline announced by Obama and other leaders pledges to work toward eliminating tariffs and other barriers to trade and investment, facilitating trade and other business, harmonizing regulatory standards, aiding small and medium-size companies and contributing to development and poverty relief.

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, has also signaled it wants to join the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Obama administration hopes other nations will be wooed as well. But China, which some economists say is on course to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy this decade, has appeared lukewarm about the Pacific trade pact.

China’s reluctance to endorse such a plan likely reflects its wariness of being drawn into what has become a U.S.-led initiative, even though the current TPP membership includes only Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore. The U.S., Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru are negotiating to join.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a speech to business leaders on the sidelines of the summit, reiterated China’s support for an earlier-proposed APEC-wide free trade zone. On Friday, the country’s trade minister, nonetheless, said Beijing would seriously consider joining the TPP if invited.