Charlot Salwai signed the PACER Plus agreement in Apia

Support for the vexed Pacific area trade agreement known as PACER-Plus has taken a significant step forward with Vanuatu becoming a signatory to the deal after declining to participate when 11 other countries concluded the eight-year negotiation in June.

“Vanuatu wasn’t ready to sign in June when we concluded the agreement,” said Trade Minister Todd McClay in a statement. “However, we’ve been working closely with them and I am pleased the Cabinet of Vanuatu has agreed to sign PACER Plus today.”

He expressed optimism that Papua New Guinea, another hold-out against a deal, might also soon sign on, following the recent appointment of a new trade minister there.

He had spoken to Rimbink Pato, PNG’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who “indicated PNG is very interested in joining PACER-Plus,” McClay told BusinessDesk. “I’m optimistic we can get PNG on board quite quickly.”

However, there was little sign of movement from Fiji, which has yet even to file a formal market access offer, a key element for any country seeking to enter an international trade agreement.

Australia, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are the current signatories.

Several small northern Pacific nations, all with traditional ties to and special trade arrangements with the US, are also expected to join the deal once issues relating to their US relationships are worked through.

The agreement is intended as much as a development as a trade-boosting arrangement, although critics charge that the trade elements of the agreement expose weak Pacific economies to too much competitive pressure for local industries to withstand.