Officials from the 12 countries involved in a Pacific free trade initiative will seek to advance their stalled talks during a meeting in Ottawa starting Thursday, following U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for an agreement on the framework by November.
While advocates of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are calling for drastic progress at the 10-day gathering, negotiation sources say a hefty amount of work remains to be done before concluding the talks, which have been delayed partly due to Japan-U.S. bickering over tariff issues.
Talks for the TPP, which would create a free trade zone encompassing around 40 percent of global gross domestic product and a third of world trade, have entered their fifth year, with the member countries also taking pains to find common ground on the issues of intellectual property rights as well as reform of state-owned enterprises to ensure fair competition.
Last month, Obama said Washington wanted the 12 countries to produce a document on a TPP agreement in time for his trip to Asia in November, although he is struggling to secure the backing of Congress for the controversial free trade deal before U.S. midterm congressional elections, also in November.
Despite Obama’s rare mentioning of a time frame for a deal, Japan and the United States, which account for roughly 80 percent of the TPP members’ GDP, have found it hard to move closer on remaining issues.
The two countries resumed talks earlier this week in Tokyo to bridge their differences as much as possible before the session in Ottawa, but they remained apart over how to cope with Japanese tariffs and safeguards on beef and pork, one of Tokyo’s five off-limits farm product categories that it is seeking to protect.
The two sides agreed to hold another meeting in Washington on July 14 and 15, but a further delay in the Japan-U.S. talks could hinder the momentum for the wider negotiations, trade observers say.
No ministerial meeting is being scheduled on the margins of the working-level talks in Ottawa, the Canadian government said. It is uncertain whether a meeting at the ministerial level, at which trade chiefs could make final political decisions to strike a deal, will be held later somewhere else.
“For now, there has been no arrangement for a ministerial meeting at all,” said a Japanese government official with direct knowledge of the TPP negotiations, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“We’ll see clearer prospects for the TPP only after the Ottawa meeting. Until then, we can’t really say anything definitive,” he said.
The 12 countries last held a ministerial meeting in Singapore in May, but they spent most of the time discussing the current situation and evaluating progress made in the past.
Akira Amari, Japan’s minister in charge of the TPP, has reiterated that if the ministers are to meet again, it should come only after thorough working-level talks and when the stage is set for the ministers to reach a broad agreement.