By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 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 right, 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.
Kirk, a former Dallas mayor, said he has spoken with Public Citizen and other critics of the agreement and will continue to weigh their priorities against those of the business community, which view the pact as an opportunity to grow their companies by developing stronger ties between the United States and the world's fast-growing region.
The United States has tried to be as open as possible about its goals for the agreement while maintaining the secrecy that is needed for countries to thrash out agreement on sensitive issues, Kirk said.
Meanwhile, Kirk said the United States was pushing hard in the negotiations for rules to leveling the playing field between private companies and "state-owned enterprises" that are becoming bigger players in world trade.
Several TPP countries, particularly Vietnam, have a number of state-owned companies that could be affected by the pact, and the United States has a longer-term goal of creating rules that could one day to be applied to China's massive state-owned firms.
Kirk conceded the topic is a tough one for negotiators.
"This is an area where we're having to get people comfortable with what we are trying to achieve, the level of ambition, and it might take more time," Kirk said, adding he would likely discuss the issue with his TPP counterparts next month in Kazan, Russia, at the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade ministers meeting.
Kirk declined to say whether there would be a decision in Kazan on Japan, Canada and Mexico's interest in joining the TPP talks, first expressed six months ago at an APEC leaders meeting in Honolulu.
The nine TPP countries welcome Japan, Canada and Mexico's interest, but have a number of concerns that must be resolved before the three countries can be brought into the talks, he said.
"So to some degree, how quickly we make a decision, the nine of us, is in the hands of Japan, Canada and Mexico demonstrating they will resolve those issues that we have been very clear with them about," he said.
Kirk did not elaborate, but U.S. business groups say agriculture, autos and insurance are the main issues for Japan, agriculture and intellectual property rights protection for Canada and certain customs rules for Mexico.
(Editing by Eric Beech)