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China pressing for vast Asia-Pacific FTA as rival US-led deal runs into snags

BEIJING -- China is pressing for a vast Asia-Pacific free trade agreement, a senior official said Wednesday, as a rival U.S.-led deal that excludes the Asian giant runs into snags.

Wang Shouwen, an assistant commerce minister, told reporters at a briefing that China has proposed setting up a working group to study the feasibility of an Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement (FTAAP).

The proposal comes ahead of a meeting in May of trade ministers from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which China will host.

“The feasibility study will look into the potential economic benefits if APEC members reach a free trade agreement, how to make use of existing FTAs ... and whether we can use the similar aspects of the various FTAs to serve the general FTA within the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.

“We think there will be no conflict between the FTAAP and the region's other FTAs under discussion.”

The idea for the FTAAP was raised in 2006 by leaders of APEC, Wang said. That group has 21 members including both China and the United States.

The U.S. has been trying to secure agreement on a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a grouping of 12 nations including Japan, Australia, Malaysia and Mexico. All belong to APEC.

But the U.S.-led trade talks have become snagged on issues related to Japan's tightly guarded auto and agricultural sectors.

There had been hopes that Tokyo and Washington might break the impasse during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Japan last week, but they failed to clinch a deal and negotiations continue.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in October said at the APEC business forum in Indonesia that his country will “commit itself to building a trans-Pacific regional cooperation framework that benefits all parties.”

The comments were interpreted by Chinese media as criticism of the TPP — a key part of Obama's economic and strategic policy.

Wang said the composition of the working group has yet to be decided but will possibly comprise government officials, business people and academics from different countries.

It will come up with suggestions on whether the FTAAP is desired and whether negotiations should start, he said.

The proposal “has won positive reactions from some APEC member countries,” he added, though he did not identify them.

Separately, China and Indonesia, which would also be excluded from the TPP, are involved in plans for another trade agreement involving 16 countries around the Asia-Pacific region and spearheaded by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Wang told reporters that the FTAAP can eventually be developed based on that pact and the TPP.

Previously when commenting on the TPP, the commerce ministry has said that China thinks all parties should be open, inclusive and transparent while setting up free trade deals.

“They should be flexible, particularly when dealing with economies at different stages of development, so that all economies can have more options” on the road to ultimately reaching an all-encompassing FTA, commerce ministry spokesman Shen Danyang said last year.

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