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Pacific trade pact countries look for 'progressive' way forward

GBS - With the retreat of the United States, China appears to be the natural successor to lead discussions.

The remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are seeking a way forward on the trade pact, they said on Wednesday, as some emphasized the need for deals to address concerns about workers' rights and other issues.

The TPP, which originally covered some 40 percent of global gross domestic product, was effectively torpedoed in its current form when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in January.

The 12 members met for the first time since then on Wednesday, assembled by Chile alongside China, South Korea, and Colombia, to try to thrash out a way forward on Asia-Pacific trade.

With the retreat of the United States, China appears to be the natural successor to lead those discussions, but an emphasis on getting a progressive deal that wins buy-in from skeptical citizens could see nations in the Americas forging a different path.

"We are talking about free trade of a very high quality, with protection for investors, the environment, and labor rights," Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray told reporters after the meeting.

"That is the primary criteria with which any negotiation that takes place will comply."

Consensus was growing that trade deals need to consider issues like the environment and labor rights, Canada's trade minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said on the sidelines.

"Around the table, the word 'progressive' appears more and more... it is becoming part of what people would consider as a base in order to progress," he said.

Critics of the TPP have said it does not do enough to protect jobs, and U.S. presidential candidates across the political spectrum promised to scrap it if elected.

But the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), promoted by China, contains far less than the TPP in terms of provisions for protecting workers and the environment.

China reiterated its wish to promote regional economic integration, but did not comment on the differences between the pacts.

Another way forward may be via Latin America's Pacific Alliance trade bloc. Its four nations said on Tuesday they would seek to expand by allowing associate membership as a precursor to trade talks.

New Zealand said in a statement on Wednesday that it expected to be one of the first to begin negotiations.

Trade officials from ex-TPP countries are now set to come up with a menu of options for ministers before they meet in May at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering in Vietnam.

Ministers wanted to continue with the "substance of the accord," Chile's foreign minister Heraldo Munoz said.

Reuters/By Rosalba O'Brien, Antonio De la Jara

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