The 12 countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations will launch a fresh round of talks Monday with expectations for progress as Japan and the United States move closer to resolving thorny bilateral issues.
Their chief negotiators are set to hold the four-day meeting in Ho Chi Minh City and follow it up with a ministerial gathering in Singapore from May 19 to 20 to tackle pending issues ranging from tariffs and intellectual property rights to reform of state-owned firms.
The TPP members failed to reach a broad agreement at their last ministerial session in February in Singapore due to Japan-U.S. bickering over market access for farm products and autos — their biggest sticking points.
The other 10 countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, have taken a wait-and-see attitude amid the Japan-U.S. deadlock, but negotiation sources say the talks could accelerate after Tokyo and Washington overcame some of their differences last month.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama said after their summit on April 24 in Tokyo that they have “identified a path forward” on important bilateral issues and that it marked a “key milestone” in the TPP.
In their joint statement, the two countries did not repeat their oft-stated phrases, such as “considerable differences remain” over thorny issues, and instead called on “all TPP partners to move as soon as possible to take the necessary steps” to conclude the agreement.
The joint statement was a result of around-the-clock negotiations between Akira Amari, minister in charge of the TPP, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who sought new ways to solve the issues before the summit so they could inject new momentum into the TPP.
Amari said recently that Tokyo and Washington have agreed on a “formula” through which the two can reach a deal, and it is “not impossible” to secure a broad, 12-country pact at the upcoming ministerial meeting if working-level talks bear fruit.
A senior U.S. administration official, who declined to be named, also said after the summit that Tokyo and Washington went through the products Japan has designated as sensitive to determine “what is the best possible outcome in terms of opening the markets.”
Though signs of progress are visible, it is not fully clear to what extent Japan and the United States — the biggest economies in the TPP — have actually made headway in bridging their gaps, leaving trade observers puzzled over how close the 12 countries are to concluding the free trade pact.
The observers say that the rest of the countries will remain reluctant to make concessions on sensitive issues of their own unless they can confirm that satisfactory progress has been made by the pact’s two biggest members.