Obama, allies stress trade at North America summit

Obama, allies stress trade at North America summit

TOLUCA, Mexico - US President Barack Obama and leaders of Mexico and Canada pledged Wednesday to improve their massive North American trade links at a summit shadowed by friction between the neighbours.

The one-day talks hosted by President Enrique Pena Nieto in an ornate state government palace in Toluca, near Mexico City, sought to find ways to revitalize the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Pena Nieto said the summit with Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper aimed to make North America the "most competitive region in the world."

The three governments have no plans to reopen NAFTA, which is worth US$1 trillion (S$1.26 trillion) a year, proposing instead to modernize it through a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership project that Washington hopes to complete this year. But Obama conceded that he faced opposition to the deal from "elements" in his own Democratic party.

"What I've said to President Pena Nieto and Prime Minister Harper is that we'll get this passed if it's a good agreement," Obama told a news conference.

The three leaders agreed on issues ranging from making trade flow more easily within North America, protecting the region's Monarch butterfly and continuing cooperation on security.

Obama and Harper also praised Pena Nieto for a slew of ambitious economic and energy reforms he has passed through his Congress.

Unresolved tensions

But sources of tensions remained unresolved in what has been billed the "three amigos" summit in the past.

Obama gave no hint to Harper as to whether his administration would finally make up its mind on the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would carry crude from Canada's oil sands across the continental United States to Texas.

The US leader repeated that US Secretary of State John Kerry is still deliberating even though a State Department report last month concluded that the pipeline would not significantly worsen global warming.

"There is a process that has been gone through, and I know it's been extensive, and at times I'm sure Stephen feels a little too laborious," Obama said.

Harper said: "My views in favour of the project are very well known. His views on the process are also equally well known. And we had that discussion and will continue on that discussion."

Obama, meanwhile, told Pena Nieto that immigration reform remains one of his highest priorities.

But the US leader did not indicate how he would break Republican resistance in the US Congress to passing sweeping legislation to bring 11 million of illegal immigrants, many of them Mexicans, out of the shadows.

Mexico and Canada have their own dispute over tough visa requirements imposed by Ottawa on Mexican travelers in 2009 to curb an influx of refugee applications.

Pena Nieto called on Harper after a bilateral meeting in Mexico City on Tuesday to negotiate a solution to eliminate the visas "in a near future."

Despite these disagreements, Pena Nieto said the summit allowed the three leaders to strengthen their friendship, taking Obama and Harper to a botanical garden and lunching with them.

The allies issued a joint declaration saying they would create a "North American Trusted Traveler Program" to facilitate trips for their citizens, promote student exchanges and improve border infrastructure.

They also moved to protect a symbol of the region.

They decided to create a working group to ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly, which migrates from Canada to Mexico every year but whose population has fallen.

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