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11 countries aim for bigger trans-Pacific free trade area

Senior officials of the 11 countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement attend a photo session for a ministerial meeting in Tokyo on Jan. 19, 2019. (Kyodo)
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi, right, share a light moment during an opening session of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership in Tokyo, on Jan. 19, 2019. T (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The eleven countries that make up a trans-Pacific free trade bloc said Saturday they will seek to expand membership in a quest to form a stronger united front against the rise of protectionism.

The existing members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, including Australia, Japan and Singapore, said the pact is "open to all economies" that can meet high-standard trade rules as they held the first ministerial meeting since its entry into force on Dec. 30 without the United States.

"It is our hope to see participation by as many countries and regions as possible. That includes the United States," Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan's minister in charge of the trade pact, said at a joint press conference with delegates from the 10 other countries.

The accord, covering around 13 percent of the world economy, is designed to cut tariffs on agricultural and industrial products, ease investment restrictions and enhance intellectual property protection. Its entry into force came amid an escalating tariff war between China and the United States.

"Amid growing concerns over recent trends toward protectionism, ministers shared the view that it is of paramount importance to maintain and further strengthen the principles of an effective open, inclusive and rules-based trading system," a joint statement said.

At the inaugural meeting of the trade bloc's decision-making panel, the current members discussed procedures to accept newcomers as countries such as Thailand and Britain are seen willing to join.

The outlook for an expanded CPTPP appears uncertain, however, following the defeat in parliament of the British government's plan to exit the European Union as well as a planned general election in Thailand, analysts said.

Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and Singapore have ended their ratification processes to become the first six countries to ratify the pact, signed in March last year after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the world's largest economy out of the original TPP.

The pact became effective for Vietnam last Monday, while Brunei, Chile, Malaysia and Peru have yet to end their domestic procedures to ratify it.

Appearing at the outset of the ministerial meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of the need to make the pact effective for all 11 members "as soon as possible" as confidence in the global trade system has been "greatly shaken."

Japan has been promoting multilateral free trade arrangements while it awaits the start later this year of bilateral trade talks with the United States.

"Japan will aim to expand the free, fair, and rules-based economic area," Abe said. "As Group of 20 chair this year, we will spare no effort to strengthen the international trade system, including reform of the World Trade Organization."

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