The United States said on Saturday it would help transform an obscure trade pact that leaders say could become the nucleus for a massive trans-Pacific free-trade zone covering 2.6 billion people.
US President Barack Obama announced Washington's intention to engage in the expansion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) during a speech in Tokyo on his way to Singapore for an Asia-Pacific summit.
"The United States will also be engaging with the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries with the goal of shaping a regional agreement that will have broad-based membership and the high standards worthy of a 21st century trade agreement," Obama said.
The TPP is a little-known trade deal involving Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore.
The United States, Australia, Peru and Vietnam have expressed their interest in joining, but Obama's remarks are the clearest so far about Washington's plans.
US Trade Representative Ron Kirk also highlighted its ambitions for the TPP in a speech to a business forum on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore.
"We seek with current and future TPP participants, to shape a platform with the scope and coverage and the high standards to successfully integrate the Asia-Pacific economies," he said.
"Our engagement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership gives us the opportunity to address gaps in our current agreements," he said, adding that a future pact would help bring jobs and prosperity to the American people.
Summit host Singapore has said it hopes Washington's accession to the deal would galvanise others economies to participate, allowing the TPP to form the seed for a free-trade zone covering all of APEC's 21 members.
Following Obama's announcement, Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet told the APEC business forum that his country is also working to join the TPP.
"Vietnam is working with other partners to study the possibility to join the TPP. So we are working very hard on that matter," he said.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Friday that if the United States and other countries join, "there will be a significant advance towards the ideal of a free-trade area which encompasses the whole Asia Pacific.