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Keeping some details secret in trade agreement talks is necessary: USTR

WASHINGTON -- The United States is being as open as possible about international negotiations to create a nine-nation free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region but has to maintain some secrecy in the talks, the top U.S. trade official said.

“I believe ... that we have very faithfully operated within the spirit of the Obama administration to have the most engaged and transparent process as we possibly could,” U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk said in an interview from Dallas, where the United States is hosting the 12th round of negotiations this week on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact.

“But there's a practical reason, for our ability both to preserve negotiating strength and to encourage our partners to be willing to put issues on the table they may not otherwise, that we have to preserve some measure of discretion and confidentiality,” Kirk said.

Critics such as consumer advocacy group Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch have called for a more open process because of their concern the pact could restrict Internet freedoms in order to fight digital piracy, reduce access to life-saving medicines by extending drug patent protections, and encourage U.S. companies to move more jobs overseas through the agreement's investment protection provisions.

They have pressed for countries to release a draft text of the TPP to allow more public input.

Kirk, in an interview with Reuters on Friday, said it was still too early in the negotiations to do that. But “there will be a time, once we have agreed on text, that we may — as we have with other agreements — be able to release that,” he said.

“There's always that tension between when you release and not,” Kirk said, noting that about a decade ago negotiators released the draft text of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and were subsequently unable to reach a final agreement.

The United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei hope to wrap up negotiations on the wide-ranging TPP trade agreement by the end of the year.

The countries are aiming for a “21st century agreement” that will go further than previous pacts in tearing down barriers to trade and raising international standards in areas like workers rights, environmental protection and intellectual property rights rules. They also want an agreement that will be open for other countries, including potentially even China, to join.

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