The 12 countries involved in a proposed Pacific-Rim free trade initiative will convene a chief negotiators’ meeting in mid-March in Hawaii, sources close to the matter said on Friday, as they scramble to secure a deal by the end of this spring.
The negotiating members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership had hoped to hold a ministerial meeting and reach a broad agreement by mid-March. But they decided that more working-level negotiations are necessary as gaps remain over contentious issues such as intellectual property, the sources said.
The chief negotiators’ meeting is being arranged from March 9 to 15, according to the sources.
Japan’s Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Akira Amari said the TPP countries are going to be “slightly behind schedule” and it now seems difficult to hold a ministerial meeting in early spring as anticipated, but such a high-level gathering will eventually be set sometime by the end of May.
In the United States, trade bills for giving President Barack Obama fast-track authority, formally called trade promotion authority, are expected to be submitted to Congress soon.
A ministerial meeting will be arranged “after that procedure (for TPA), or in parallel with that,” Amari said at a press conference.
Amari’s remark comes on the heels of a comment made Thursday by a senior U.S. congressman visiting Tokyo, who said he expects a bill to give Obama fast-track authority will be enacted this spring.
Paul Ryan, chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, told a Tokyo press conference: “We are in what we call the 11th hour in negotiating the final pieces of TPA.
“We don’t have a set timeline yet, other than the fact that this will be done this spring,” he added.
If the president is given TPA, the government will only have to ask Congress whether it backs the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal across the board without revisions. The TPA legislation will be deliberated at the House Ways and Means Committee.
A Wisconsin Republican congressman who is leading bipartisan delegation of U.S. lawmakers in Japan, Ryan also said at the Japan National Press Club: “We fully anticipate this will be ready in time to make it meaningful and put in the right sequence so that we can hopefully conclude TPP negotiations soon after that.”
On Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated his resolve to conclude the free trade negotiations, during a meeting with U.S. lawmakers at the prime minister’s office.
Abe said that economic relations between Japan and the United States have strengthened considerably and that Japan hopes to further boost ties, including through the TPP initiative, according to Japanese officials.
Ryan also said at the press club that trade through the TPP will be a win-win for Japan and the United States. The two countries have struggled to find common ground on how widely Japan should open its agricultural market.
While the U.S.-led TPP initiative aims to abolish all tariffs in principle, Tokyo has sought to protect key agricultural products — rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy and sugar.
“It’s important for us to acknowledge anxieties but also important for us to work together to find common ground and bridge those gaps so that we can have a trade agreement that builds our alliance together and that grows our economies,” Ryan said.
Japan and the U.S. account for a combined 80 percent of the TPP members’ economies, and their lingering differences on farm products and autos have acted as a drag on the overall negotiations, which began nearly five years ago.
Ryan claimed the TPP would help create more jobs, higher wages, faster economic growth and higher living standards.
“We see this as a way of increasing collaboration between our two countries and together jointly writing the rules of trade in this region, which will be to the benefit of our two countries and the global economy,” he said.
The 10 other TPP negotiating countries are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Later in the day, the delegation held separate talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. The lawmakers also met Wednesday with Amari.