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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said on Tuesday that he was optimistic a deal could be reached in Asia Pacific free-trade talks in 2013 though tough issues remain.
"It's a negotiation. It will be very difficult to close ... (but) we've done it before," Kirk said, referring to other trade pacts the United States has concluded.
The United States and 10 other countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks are wrapping up their 15th round of negotiation on Wednesday in Auckland, New Zealand.
U.S. business groups had cast the Auckland round, coming so soon after President Barack Obama's re-election in November, as an opportunity for significant strides in the nearly three-year-old talks because U.S. negotiators would have more freedom to deal with politically sensitive issues.
But one U.S. business official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday there was less progress in Auckland than hoped on tough trade-offs needed for a deal.
That raises the stakes for the March round of negotiations, if countries are serious about a deal in 2013, the aide said.
The Asia-Pacific region contains many of the world's biggest and fastest-growing economies and its middle-class population is expected to swell to 1.75 billion people by 2020 from 525 million in 2009, according to one estimate.
With the center of global economic activity moving increasingly to the East, U.S. companies see the TPP pact as one way to avoid being shut out of fast-forming preferential trading arrangements in the region.
But the United States is under pressure to open up sensitive sectors such as sugar, dairy, textiles and footwear to more imports in response to its demands for countries take on new commitments in areas like labor, the environment, intellectual property rights and state-owned enterprises.
Kirk, who is expected to step down soon as U.S. trade representative, said finishing the talks next year was "stretch goal" but he felt confident it could be achieved.
"I think we can get it closed," he said in response to a question at Third Way, a policy think tank.
The 11 countries in the TPP talks are the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.
Kirk also said he believed it was important for Obama to have "trade promotion authority," which allows the White House to negotiate trade deals it can submit to Congress for straight up-and-down votes without any amendments.
He said the administration was begun "quiet conversations" with Congress about the authority, which many trade experts consider essential for the United States to persuade other countries to put their best offers on the table.
Reporting By Alister Bull and Doug Palmer; editing by Philip Barbara