SINGAPORE – As the proposed deadline for sealing a deal by year’s end looms, ministers from 12 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks are tasked with making tough political decisions as they meet in Singapore from Saturday, with hard negotiations on outstanding issues lying ahead.
The four-day meeting is expected to be the last opportunity for Japan, the United States and 10 other countries bordering the Pacific Ocean to try to realize the ambitious economic initiative — encompassing roughly one-third of all world trade — on schedule.
However, many doubt whether they can make a coordinated effort to break through contentious topics ranging from how to deal with tariffs to intellectual property rights to state-owned firms, as some members like Malaysia, which are against the hard-line U.S. stance, have suggested the bloc may not meet the time frame.
At such a critical time, Akira Amari, Japan’s minister in charge of the TPP negotiations, will miss the crucial session after he announced Thursday he has been diagnosed with tongue cancer. The absence of one of the key TPP figures may also affect the prospect for the negotiations as well as Japan’s position in the talks.
Japan, which has been reluctant to scrap tariffs on key farm products including rice, faces tough bargaining as it is under strong pressure from many of the negotiating peers to open up its agricultural market as the U.S.-led TPP is basically aiming for abolition of all tariffs.
Amid persistent concern among Japanese farmers that the highly protected industry would be battered by an influx of inexpensive foreign products, Amari has maintained a firm stance on retaining tariffs on rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar, saying they are “the red lines” for the country.
Tokyo and Washington have failed to bridge the difference prior to the ministerial meeting, with their last bilateral meeting held on Sunday ending with no progress.
Whether the two can find common ground “will determine the direction of the overall negotiations,” Amari told reporters following the bilateral meeting.
Japan “will not give an inch” to the United States, Amari said.
Tokyo has decided to send Yasutoshi Nishimura, senior vice minister of the Cabinet Office, in place of Amari, but negotiation sources are concerned the deputy may not be able to fill Amari’s shoes.
Among other controversial issues is intellectual property, a field in which developed and emerging countries have competing interests.
While the United States tries to realize protection of patents for new medicines for a longer period of time so pharmaceutical companies could see higher profits before patent cliffs, some members have expressed concern it could restrict the availability of generic medicines for the poor.
It would also be difficult to set a unified rule for promoting fair corporate competition, as members such as Vietnam, which want to protect state-owned firms that dominate their economies, are in conflict with developed countries seeking reform of such firms.
The TPP is touted by advocates as a “21st century” trade liberalization pact, as it aims to not only abolish tariffs and other trade obstacles but also protect the environment and labor rights.
Although many complex hurdles are left, U.S. President Barack Obama, who has committed the United States to the pact, is out to create a certain outcome at an early date in light of midterm elections slated for next year.
But a negotiation source said the 12 members have too much work to deal with and there is “no way” they would reach any deal at the upcoming meeting, adding there is no point to issuing an artificial consensus statement with no substantial outcome.