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U.S. eyes quick expansion of technology trade pact

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is optimistic countries will agree to expand a landmark agreement that helped triple world trade in semiconductors, computers and other technology products to $4 trillion over the past 15 years, a top U.S. official said on Wednesday.

"I've been very encouraged by what I've been hearing from other (World Trade Organization) members," Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro said in an interview. "We want to do this as quickly as possible. We want to frame this for success."

The Information Technology Agreement, which was signed by the United States and 28 other countries in 1996, eliminated duties on eight categories of information and communications technology products, helping to cut costs, increase company productivity and drive innovation.

The groundbreaking pact now includes 73 countries but still covers the same products as the day it was signed.

That leaves out hundreds of goods created over the last 15 years, such as GPS systems, flat panel displays and video game consoles such as Microsoft's xBox or Sony's PlayStation, and many everyday products such as televisions, DVD players and audio speakers not originally included.

The United States wants to expand the current product list as much as possible and also bring additional countries into the pact, Sapiro said, noting that Russia is already set to join when it becomes a WTO member this year.

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, estimates expanding the pact could remove tariffs on an additional $800 billion in world trade.

That has the potential to increase U.S. exports $2.8 billion annually, helping "to create approximately 60,000 new U.S. jobs throughout the economy," the ITIF said in a recent report.

An expansion would also help the many developing countries - which include India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Egypt - that are part of the pact, Sapiro said.

The WTO will host a symposium in May to mark the 15th anniversary of the agreement.

Sapiro, who has been consulting with other WTO members on the scope of the proposed expansion, was reluctant to say countries would be ready by that meeting to launch negotiations, as some in U.S. industry hope.

"We'll have the chance to celebrate the success and explain to participants why we think now the time is right for an expansion of the products. Because it's been so successful, we want to make it even more successful," Sapiro said.

Leaders of the 21-economy Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which includes the United States, China, Japan and South Korea, gave the initiative a significant boost in November by calling for a broader product list.

The European Union also has been pushing for a more comprehensive agreement and at least some voices in Europe want the negotiations to also tackle "non-tariff barriers," like government regulations, that impede trade.

U.S. industry, which hopes for an agreement in a year, fears that could jeopardize the talks, a view Sapiro shares.

"I do believe that adding non-tariff barriers would make this a much more challenging negotiations. I worry that doing so would risk a successful negotiation," Sapiro said.

The United States will continue to work with the EU and other WTO members to reach consensus on terms for launching an expansion of the pact, she said.

(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Paul Simao)

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