Ministers of the 12 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations agreed Sunday to uphold a basic rule on tariff eliminations to wrap up their three-day meeting on Bali and pursue a deal by the end of the year.
As they sought to compile work plans for advancing talks on contentious areas, the ministers held market access talks covering tariff elimination rules and intellectual property rights, among other issues, despite the existence of sensitive products in each country.
A member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party sent to keep track of developments at the talks told reporters afterward that the situation is tough, and the LDP is now looking into the possibility of eliminating tariffs on items once considered untouchable, including rice.
“We need to consider whether we can remove them (from protection) or not,” said Koya Nishikawa, head of the LDP’s TPP committee. But that, he emphasized, doesn’t necessarily mean the ruling party has tariff removal in mind, he claimed.
“If it doesn’t hurt (Japanese agriculture), it would be up to the government to negotiate” and hammer out the policies, he said.
Japan is under strong pressure from its farmers to keep tariffs in place for five items: imported rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar. The latest development, however, could undermine their efforts.
To speed up talks already more than 3 years old, the members plan to hold a ministerial meeting in December, negotiation sources said at the Indonesian island resort.
The work plans, compiled as a report, will be submitted to the political leaders who are coming to participate in the TPP summit on Tuesday, despite the absence of U.S. President Barack Obama, who was forced to cancel by the partial government shutdown brought on by the budget impasse in Congress, officials said.
Before the ministerial meeting began, TPP minister Akira Amari told reporters that members were making progress and that Obama’s absence will not affect their plans to reach a deal this year.
“We were shocked that President Obama could not make it, but we quickly decided that we will maintain the momentum” of the negotiations, Amari said.
Amari said the talks have been “moving forward steadily” and said “We will make last-minute adjustments between the ministers so that (the meeting) will be a great step forward toward achieving the year-end conclusion.”
The ministerial meeting began Thursday and held a second session on Friday. The meeting, together with the preceding meeting of the chief negotiators and the summit, is being held on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Once the political leaders get the report, they are expected to announce that the TPP members’ work on the trade deal is essentially finished, the sources said.
The ministerial report will be announced together with the leaders’ statement at the end of the TPP summit.
The 12 TPP countries — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam — have been aiming to reach a broad agreement this month.
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