, CAIRNS, Aug 6 – The Pacific Islands Forum will soon start negotiating a controversial regionwide free trade and economic relations deal, Australia\’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Thursday.
At the end of a two-day summit of leaders from Australia, New Zealand and 13 Pacific island nations, Rudd said there were no major obstacles to negotiations starting on the deal, known as PACER Plus.
"They will get underway fairly rapidly and we have resolved the mechanism in terms of how to maintain coordination at a low official level with Fiji\’s administration," Rudd told a press conference.
"We don\’t believe that will be any impediment to proceeding."
Some Pacific Island countries had earlier said they were not ready to begin the negotiations for the PACER Plus deal.
There had also been concerns that it would be impossible to negotiate a deal without the high level involvement of Fiji, one of the biggest island economies.
Fiji\’s military regime has been suspended from the forum since May because of its refusal to quickly hold elections to restore democracy.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said he welcomed the launch of PACER Plus negotiations.
"Trade remains a key driver for economic development in the Pacific and we want to see the Pacific producing and trading more successfully with New Zealand, Australia and other trading partners," he said in a statement.
The trade deal would allow Pacific island countries — some of which are among the smallest and poorest in the world — to better withstand external shocks, and to increase jobs and export capacity, he said.
"It’s important that we ensure all forum island countries can take full advantage of improved trading arrangements," he said.