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No clear path to TPP without game changer

Talks break up without agreement as U.S. midterm elections threaten momentum

by Kakumi Kobayashi

Kyodo

Negotiators of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative still see no clear path to signing an accord, six months after missing their primary deadline at the end of last year.

Chief negotiators of the TPP deal from Japan, the U.S. and 10 other Pacific Rim countries wrapped up a meeting Saturday in Ottawa without agreement, even on a date for the next meeting, due to major differences over contentious issues such as intellectual property.

Observers say some negotiators may start questioning whether the TPP negotiations can maintain momentum as the United States, the leader of the process, is unable to make any game-changing decisions in the coming months due to midterm elections in November.

Koya Nishikawa, head of the TPP committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, regards this year’s U.S. midterm elections as “one of the most important factors” in determining whether the 12 countries can strike a deal to in principle abolish all trade tariffs among them.

Nishikawa went to Ottawa to check developments in the final stage of the chief negotiators’ meeting.

“The discussions could run out of steam and get bogged down if there is a pause after the U.S. elections. Representatives from every country understand this,” Nishikawa told reporters after the meeting wrapped up without major progress.

“Time is really running out in the U.S. political calendar,” said Derek Scissors, resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute think tank. The political momentum in the United States for the TPP is “zero” in the run-up to the midterm elections and there is no guarantee it will emerge as a major issue in late 2014 or 2015, Scissors said.

A point in late 2015 may effectively be the deadline for concluding a TPP pact, as campaigning for the 2016 presidential election will begin around that time, he said.

The chief negotiators and other trade officials involved in the process have been baffled since U.S. President Barack Obama abruptly suggested last month that a TPP document be hammered out by November.

Koji Tsuruoka, Japan’s chief TPP negotiator, said he and his counterparts from the 11 countries did not even discuss Obama’s proposal in the latest round in the Canadian capital. Tsuruoka suggested it appears premature for the negotiators to discuss anything that could happen far beyond the current point.

“The chief TPP negotiators cannot see any path to the future unless they meet again,” he said.

A lack of progress in talks between Japan and the United States, the largest economies among the TPP members, has also helped stall the plenary process that originally began in 2010 with nine countries.

Japan joined the talks, aimed at creating a free trade zone that would contain some 40 percent of global gross domestic output, nearly a year ago as a latecomer. Japan is seeking exceptional tariffs on some agricultural produce to protect domestic farmers under a TPP framework and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has shown no sign of major concessions.