Ministers from 12 Pacific-Rim countries failed Tuesday to achieve the goal of reaching a broad agreement on an envisioned regional free trade deal due to remaining gulfs over such key outstanding issues as tariff elimination.

After wrapping up their four-day meeting in Singapore, the members involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks said in a joint statement that they made “further strides toward a final agreement.”

But they acknowledged that some issues, including tariff removal, remain unresolved and they pledged to continue working toward completion of an “ambitious package” in the area of market access among Japan, the United States and 10 other nations.

According to a source, the ministers are considering holding the next ministerial meeting in May. The timing coincides with trade ministerial talks of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum planned for May 17-18 in Tsingtao, China, but the venue has yet to be decided, the source said.

“That’s when they hope to conclude (the TPP) before (the) U.S. midterm election” in November, the source said, adding that a chief negotiators’ working-level meeting may take place in April.

The plan, however, is not stipulated in the joint statement and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said at a joint press conference that there is no specific plan for the next ministerial meeting.

The 12 countries did not set a new deadline for striking a deal either.

During the press conference, Akira Amari, Japan’s minister in charge of the TPP talks, emphasized that solving the remaining issues between Japan and the United States, the two biggest economies in the TPP, is important to realizing the trade deal.

Conflict between Tokyo and Washington over tariff removal on sensitive products has been one of the sticking points in the TPP negotiations. The two countries tried to break an impasse in Singapore, but huge gaps remained.

The source also said Japan maintained its stance on protecting its duties on sensitive farm products, and did not offer any concessions.

On Monday, Japan and the United States held their second bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a plenary session, ending up merely acknowledging that they are still far apart over whether Japan can retain tariffs on key farm products, including rice and beef, as well as over the phase-out period of U.S. auto duties.

The latest session of negotiations, which began Saturday, come after the ministers abandoned the initial goal of striking a deal by the end of 2013 at their last gathering, also held in Singapore.

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