ATLANTA – Ministers from the United States, Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries began make-or-break talks Wednesday on concluding a sweeping free trade deal that would encompass 40 percent of the global economy.
But the high-level talks on the envisioned U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership were adjourned after only about an hour, with TPP minister Akira Amari and many of the other participants engaging in a series of bilateral sessions.
Amari and other members of the Japanese delegation indicated there was little progress on the thorny issues of new drug patents, tariffs on automobiles and market access for dairy products.
Amari expressed discontent with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman’s steering of the fractious meeting.
“I want (the United States) to do its utmost,” he said, after being asked about Froman’s leadership of the multilateral round.
The ministers provisionally planned to resume their plenary meeting at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Amari told reporters. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said the Atlanta meeting will wrap up the same day.
With the United States increasingly preoccupied with next year’s presidential election, Japanese officials warned that a failure this round could stall the negotiations for years. Canada, too, will lose focus as it holds a general election next month.
The United States wants to protect drug patents for 12 years to the benefit of major pharmaceutical firms, with Australia and other countries advocating only a five- or eight-year period, according to negotiation sources.
“We must seal a deal in this ministerial meeting” for a conclusion of the broad initiative, Amari said, adding that other matters can be referred to working-level consultations even after the high-level session ends.
Amari said he met bilaterally with Australian trade minister Andrew Robb on Tuesday. He did not rule out holding bilateral meetings with officials from nations such as the United States and Mexico on the fringes of the plenary session, but said thorough working-level consultations to iron out differences should come first.
“Holding bilateral meetings with my counterparts during these ministerial talks means we need to reach an agreement there,” Amari said.
Outside the hotel where the talks were being held, a group of protesters denounced the TPP negotiations on drug patents, saying extending the protection of new drug data would thwart the development of cheaper generic medicine.
“I am here to remind Ambassador Froman and the USTR team that the policies they promote are supposed to represent the interests of the people of the United States, not just the short-term greed of the giant pharmaceutical companies,” said Zahara Heckscher, a breast cancer sufferer.
Peter Maybarduk, a member of the Washington-based group Public Citizen, said, “It’s unacceptable that it’s being negotiated in secret right now as we speak here on the street and we cannot be a part of the conversation.”
On automobiles, differences remain among the United States, Japan, Canada and Mexico over the ratio of components that would need to be made in the TPP zone to avoid duties or incur lower tariffs.
The United States kicked off TPP negotiations in 2010 with Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Canada, Japan, Mexico and Malaysia later joined the talks.
The ministers from the 12 countries failed to reach agreement during a session in Hawaii in late July, after which huge gaps remained.