KAPOLEI, Hawaii — A U.S.-backed plan to forge a Pacific free trade bloc got a big boost Sunday when leaders of Canada and Mexico joined Japan in expressing support for a deal that has received a cool reception from China, the region’s rising power.

The news was a coup for President Obama, who made progress on the pact one of his top priorities for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit being held in his home state of Hawaii. It comes after Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy, said Friday that it wants to join the nine nations already involved in talks on what has been dubbed the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The balmy weather for the annual APEC gathering at a resort on the west side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu contrasted with deepening pessimism over the economic outlook as the leaders sat down for a day of talks on how to spur growth and create jobs. With Europe again on the brink of recession, Asia’s vital role as a driver of global growth has gained even greater urgency.

IMF Director Christine Lagarde attended the summit, briefing the APEC leaders on the latest developments in Europe. The International Monetary Fund will play a key role in coming months in overseeing efforts by Italy, and other ailing economies that use the euro common currency, to rein in debt.

Europe’s quandary is among the wide range of issues that the Asia-Pacific leaders were tackling in their one-day meeting.

“Now it’s time to get down to work, and we have much to do,” Obama said in opening the summit. “Our 21 economies – our nearly 3 billion citizens – are looking to us to bring our economies closer, to increase exports, to expand trade and opportunity that creates jobs and economic growth. That’s why we’re here.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his country must look to the East to ensure markets, especially for its energy exports. “That will be an important priority of this government going forward,” Harper said before meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the 21-member APEC summit.

The U.S. Trade Representative, Ron Kirk, welcomed the overtures from Canada and Mexico about joining the so-called TPP, issuing a statement calling them America’s “neighbors and largest export markets.”

But China, which some economists say is on course to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy this decade, has appeared reluctant to endorse the Pacific trade pact, likely wary of being drawn into what has become a U.S.-led initiative that encroaches on its own sphere of influence in Asia. China also has commitments to rival free trade blocs in East and Southeast Asia.

The TPP group now includes only four smaller, relatively affluent economies – Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore.