Negotiators aim for 'ambitious' start to Nafta talks: US official

WASHINGTON • Negotiators from Canada, Mexico and the United States are aiming for an ambitious first round of trade talks, a senior US official said, as the countries try to fast-track a deal to modernise the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) by early next year.

The US trade representative (USTR) official, speaking to reporters on a conference call, said all sides would submit a substantial number of proposals during the first week of the talks aimed at renegotiating the pact in Washington. The talks were due to start yesterday.

"We are actually going to be quite ambitious in this first round," the USTR official said, without elaborating.

The talks follow threats by US President Donald Trump during his presidential campaign to ditch the 1994 Nafta agreement, which he said had hurt US manufacturing and drained jobs to low-wage Mexico. Mr Trump said later he had been convinced by Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the pact.

While US administration officials have said there is no firm deadline to reach an agreement, Mexico is pushing to finish before its presidential campaign begins in earnest in February.

The US has said its top priority for the talks is shrinking the US$64 billion (S$88 billion) US goods trade deficit with Mexico, as well as a much smaller US$11 billion deficit with Canada. It also wants to deter currency manipulation by trading partners, strengthen Nafta rules of origin and eliminate a trade dispute mechanism under so-called Chapter 19, which Canada wants to keep in the agreement.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland suggested on Monday that Ottawa could walk away from the talks if the US insisted on scrapping the mechanism to resolve trade disputes between the three Nafta countries.

This week's talks will be led by Ms Freeland, US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo.

Each side is expected to make remarks at the start of the talks being held at a historic Washington hotel.

The first round of meetings, which is expected to last until Sunday, will largely be administrative and focus on merging proposed texts from all three sides, according to a senior US trade official, speaking to reporters on the eve of the talks.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Negotiators aim for 'ambitious' start to Nafta talks: US official'. Print Edition | Subscribe