WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is set to travel to the Dominican Republic today to guide the first of three negotiating rounds of free-trade talks aimed at integrating the Caribbean country into the recently completed Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The Dominican Republic, which sent 757 million square meters equivalent of apparel and textiles to the U.S. for the year ended Oct. 31, valued at $2.2 billion, produces about 4 percent of the apparel imported into the U.S. The Bush administration agreed early last year to allow the country to eventually join the CAFTA on a separate track with a separate trade pact.

The U.S., which completed CAFTA with four Central American countries — El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala — is also trying to wrap up separate negotiations next week with Costa Rica, which abruptly pulled out of the talks in December after refusing a U.S. mandate to change its telecommunications and insurance laws. Apparel and textile imports from the five Central American countries, including Costa Rica, stood at 3.02 billion SME and were valued at $7.2 billion for the year ended Oct. 31.

Meanwhile, the leaders of 34 countries seeking to create a Western hemispheric free-trade zone agreed Tuesday to continue negotiating a regional trade pact that has been scaled back, but avoided setting a deadline for completion. The U.S. and other countries had been pushing for a January 2005 deadline for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, but the negotiations have been so divisive that many experts doubted it could ever hit the target date. Tuesday’s announcement came in a joint declaration by heads of state, including President Bush, who have been in Monterrey, Mexico this week for the Summit of the Americas.

In other news, a U.S. trade delegation is in Beijing this week to hold consultations with China over safeguard quotas the U.S. intends to impose on three apparel and textile import categories from China. If the two sides fail to reach an agreement, the U.S. has said it will limit the growth of China’s imports in the categories of dressing gowns and robes, knit fabric and bras and other body-supporting garments to 7.5 percent above the previous year’s levels, and will make them retroactive to Dec. 24. China reserves the right to take the case to the WTO, but the quotas will remain in place until the issue is resolved.

This story first appeared in the January 14, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.