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Australia trade minister sees chance for agreement on trans-Pacific trade pact early next year

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CANBERRA, Australia - A trans-Pacific free trade pact could be agreed upon early next year before U.S. presidential election politics get in the way, Australia's trade minister said Wednesday.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is aimed at cutting tariffs and setting trade rules, and is central to the Obama administration's attempt to boost American exports to Asia and re-orientate U.S. foreign policy toward a region of growing economic importance. The pact is seen as a precursor to a future wide free-trade arrangement for the entire Pacific Rim region.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb told a U.S. Studies Center conference in Canberra that there was no chance of an agreement being struck among the 12 nations this year.

"I think this year's out. I mean, we'll keep negotiating, there's quite a momentum I feel and we are .... over 80 per cent of the way," Robb said.

Robb said the final stage of negotiations was the most difficult and important.

"With the political will, it could conclude fairly quickly," he said.

"The Republicans have said it will not get through this year; they've said to me privately and probably have been saying it publicly," he said. "In the first half of the year, there's a political opportunity in the U.S., potentially. And if they go after that, you start to run into the politics of the next presidential election."

"I think the first half of next year, I think we'll be there more or less with the content, it's then just the politics," he added.

Countries negotiating the TPP are the United States, Japan, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told the conference in a video address from Washington that the economic significance of the TPP was enormous, covering 40 per cent of global GDP and a third of the world's trade.

"This is an opportunity that we must not let pass us by," Froman said. "I look forward to working with Minister Robb and others to lead these negotiations to a successful conclusion in the coming months."

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