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FILE PHOTO: Containers are seen inside the Manila South Harbor, metro Manila February 15, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco


MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines will begin negotiations on a free trade agreement with the United States in September, its ambassador to Washington said on Thursday, in a bid to expand market access for its agricultural products.

Jose Manuel Romualdez told reporters the first round of talks will be held in Washington and would likely focus on labour, intellectual property and agriculture as Manila looks to boost exports to foreign markets.

"It's just the start and this will take some time, maybe one or two years," Romualdez said, adding the Philippines has a $5.4 billion (4.1 billion pounds) trade surplus with the United States in 2016, one of the country's top trading partners.

Romualdez said a free trade agreement with the world's largest economy was likely to be approved given that the Philippines is a much smaller U.S. trading partner than China and Europe, which have become targets of the Trump administration's "America First" trade agenda.

Trade tensions between Washington and China have escalated after U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, threatened 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods.

Annual two-way trade of goods and services between the Philippines and its long-term ally totalled $27 billion in 2016, according to the Office of U.S. Trade Representative. It would be Washington's second FTA with a Southeast Asian country after Singapore.

Initial talks on the Philippines-United States FTA were held in November after President Rodrigo Duterte met with U.S Donald Trump during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila.

About 75 percent of Philippine exports to the United States already enter the American market duty-free, but Manila wants to gain market access for its garments and textiles, wristwatches and agricultural products, including top export carrageenan and seaweed.

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing By Sam Holmes)

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