By Elliot Spagat, AP
SAN DIEGO–Negotiators from the United States and eight other Pacific Rim countries opened a round of talks Monday aimed at producing one of the most ambitious trade deals in decades amid growing criticism that the deliberations are shrouded in secrecy.
The U.S. has been negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement for about three years. The talks include Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Mexico and Canada are expected to join, and Japan has expressed interest.
The pact is intended to lower trade barriers and spur economic growth in the Pacific Rim region.
Last week, two-thirds of House Democrats wrote to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk — the White House’s top trade official — complaining they were being left out of communications on the pact.
Rep. Darrell Issa, Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Kirk denied his request to observe the 13th round of talks, which run through July 10. Issa said the talks should not be “a secretive backroom negotiation.”
President Barack Obama said in November he was optimistic an agreement would be reached this year.
About 100 protestors peacefully demonstrated outside the California hotel where the talks opened. Critics said the talks threatened climate change laws, regulation of financial markets, labor rights and environmental and health protections.
“Let us say, ‘Open these negotiations to the people,’” Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Filner told the crowd. “Let’s stop this so-called free trade.”