SINGAPORE – The 16th round of negotiations for the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership talks began Monday in Singapore, with consideration of new membership and charting out plans to ensure a free-trade deal by October high on the agenda.
The meetings through March 13 will involve some 600 delegates from the 11 countries negotiating the U.S.-led TPP agreement: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
Singapore’s chief negotiator, Ng Bee Khim, was quoted by The Straits Times newspaper as saying membership will be one of the main issues to be discussed during the round.
On Feb. 26, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he will decide soon on Japan’s entry into the negotiations for the TPP, a comprehensive agreement aimed at reducing barriers to trade and investment and enhancing regional economic integration.
“I will make an early judgment on the best path to serve Japan’s national interests based on the outcome of the Japan-U.S. summit,” Abe told a government panel tasked with forming measures to reinvigorate the domestic economy.
He was referring to his agreement with U.S. President Barack Obama during their Feb. 22 summit in Washington that joining the TPP negotiations would not require a Japanese commitment to eliminate all tariffs without exception.
Several TPP officials interviewed Monday said current members are “positive” about Japan joining the TPP.
Over the next 10 days, 20 working groups will negotiate over issues, including customs, telecommunications, technical barriers to trade, sanitary and phytosanitary matters, competition policy, e-commerce, the environment, cross-border trade in services, investment, government procurements, intellectual property rights, market access and labor.
Ng, who is director general of trade at Singapore’s Trade and Industry Ministry, said negotiators will seek to establish guide posts for their goal to wrap up their negotiations before leaders of 21 regional economies meet in Bali on Oct. 7-8 for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
The TPP is viewed as a pathway toward creation of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, an APEC initiative.
All 11 TPP parties are also members of APEC, which also includes China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.