By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined with counterparts from across the Americas on Friday seeking to advance efforts to forge a regional economic partnership, building on a framework President Joe Biden announced at a Los Angeles summit in June.

Hosting a virtual meeting with 11 other countries, Blinken predicted that the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity would help deepen trade ties, strengthen post-pandemic supply chains, enhance good governance and reform regional institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank.

Blinken called it “an ambitious high-standards initiative” and said it remained open to other countries willing to meet those standards. But his address to the group was lacking in many specifics for how the partnership could function.

Jose Fernandez, U.S. under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, told reporters that Washington’s aim was to complete an agreement this year.

Friday’s meeting was meant to move forward on Biden’s proposal unveiled at the Summit of the Americas as part of an effort to rebuild U.S. influence and counter China’s growing economic inroads in Latin America. The Biden administration also wants to promote economic development among its poorer neighbors to help curb irregular migration at the U.S. southern border.

The 2022 summit itself was undermined by discord over the guest list, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leading several other countries in boycotting the event due to Biden’s exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Mexico, however, on Friday joined what Blinken described as an event to “officially launch” the partnership. It included Canada, Barbados, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Uruguay.

“This is just the beginning,” Biden said in a statement. “I look forward to gathering with Americas Partnership leaders to discuss ways we can continue to deepen our economic cooperation and harness our strengths.”

Under Secretary Fernandez insisted “this is not necessarily about China.” But other U.S. officials have made clear their concern about China’s growing economic footprint in the region.

On Friday, Blinken and several other ministers said the region’s challenges include higher energy prices linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A White House fact sheet said among the objectives of the partnership will be to build the foundation for greater investment, “including customs procedures, trade facilitation, logistics, good regulatory practices, and non-tariff barriers.”

But the plan has stopped short of offering tariff relief and has included a number of countries that already have trade accords with the United States.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Ismail Shakil; editing by Jonathan Oatis)



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