By Geoff Elliott
The Trans-Pacific Partnership between Australia and 11 other Pacific nations, including the US, is at the "endgame" and the Obama administration is keen to expand the partnership further, according to a senior US trade representative.
In a bullish assessment, Wendy Cutler, the acting deputy US Trade Representative, told a conference on emerging Asia that the TPP "is going to be completed and it is going to set the economic architecture for the region".
Ms Cutler and Australia's trade minister Andrew Robb expect another meeting of the 12 countries next month after what Ms Cutler described as a "successful meeting" in December in Singapore.
She said the Obama administration was engaging on the trade agreement "at all levels", noting Michael Froman, the US trade representative, was heading to the World Economic Forum in Davos to meet several counterparts. US trade negotiating teams are also currently in South-East Asia.
But the US Congress remains a domestic hurdle in the US on trade agreements and Ms Cutler said the Obama administration was working "intensively with Congress" to get the necessary approvals, including the so called Trade Promotion Authority to help the US fast track trade deals.
She called the TPP a "living agreement" that was being designed as an open platform in which new countries could join, saying Australia and US could work closely in helping make that happen.
South Korea has expressed interested in joining the TPP and Mark Johnson, veteran Australian banker and member of the APEC Business Advisory Panel, said he had heard informal indications from China that it was also interested in looking further into the TPP.
Former US ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich said that the TPP countries were "on the cusp of closing out the agreement".
He said it "would one of the most significant world trade agreements in all of world history".
Like Australian officials, the Obama administration view the TPP as a significant new framework for rules-based engagement that is tied to rising concerns about the security of the region as disputes over maritime borders escalate.
Mr Johnson told the conference that a failure to land the TPP would "be very serious" and Andrew Stoler, a former trade negotiator in the US, agreed it would have "grave consequences".
The countries negotiating the TPP currently are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, US and Vietnam.
The conference was held at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in conjunction with the United States Studies Centre from the University of Sydney and as part of the Alliance 21 and G'day USA programs.
This article was originally published at The Australian