SINGAPORE – A broad Pacific trade accord appears nowhere in sight after ministers from 12 countries failed to specify a timeline for striking a deal, despite the efforts of Japan and the United States to inject impetus by highlighting the progress they made on tariffs in bilateral talks last month.
The two-day “check-in” gathering, which wrapped up Tuesday in Singapore, was mainly aimed at assessing the extent of progress made by Tokyo and Washington during their marathon talks in April.
However, some negotiation sources from the other countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks said they did not see any drastic change in the Japanese and U.S. positions.
What substantive progress had Tokyo and Washington actually achieved? That was the question the other countries wanted to ask before moving forward on sensitive issues of their own, as the negotiations between Japan and the United States, which together account for around 80 percent of the TPP countries’ gross domestic product, will definitely influence the wider talks.
Some people who attended the meeting said Akira Amari, the minister in charge of TPP negotiations, stated that Tokyo and Washington had made headway and the two countries were still discussing tariffs on Japan’s off-limits farm products and U.S. autos — but no further details were provided.
The Japan-U.S. talks seem to be “still on the rocks. . . . They are still holding on to their sensitive goods,” said one negotiation source, who was briefed on the current situation at the ministerial meeting.
At a joint press conference, the TPP ministers stressed that progress has been made on market access issues including tariffs, but the impasse between countries seeking to retain duties on sensitive products and those insisting on scrapping all tariffs does not appear to have been overcome.
Amari declared during the ministerial meeting that Tokyo “cannot abolish tariffs” completely on its off-limits farm products, and all the negotiating members “need to acknowledge that all tariffs won’t go to zero” if they want to advance the negotiations.
New Zealand trade minister Tim Groser told reporters that the major agricultural exporter would “stick to” its position of calling for zero tariffs. “Under no circumstances will we consider any alternative,” he said.
It is widely believed that the time limit for completing a deal may be November, when the United States will hold midterm elections.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who has placed the TPP at the core of his strategic shift toward Asia amid China’s increasing influence in the region, is seeking to swiftly secure a deal by then. But trade observers say the negotiations will take much longer.
Kazuhito Yamashita, a research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, said a significant advance in the negotiations is unlikely, as even Japan and the United States have yet to reach a bilateral agreement.
“I think we will see an agreement in 2015” among the 12 countries, he said.
Last month, Amari said Tokyo and Washington had agreed on a “formula” the two sides could use to reach an accord. They resumed negotiations in Singapore at both the ministerial and working levels, but Japanese negotiation sources played down the prospects of taking the talks to the next level anytime soon.
“It’s not so easy to solve that ‘formula.’ There are tons of things that need to be done,” said a person with direct knowledge of the Japan-U.S. negotiations, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The ministers decided TPP chief negotiators will meet in July, which may be the last time they will gather before full-fledged campaigning for the U.S. midterm elections starts.
Amari told a press conference on Tuesday evening that the next gathering will be a “crucial” one to spur momentum, but neither a deadline for securing a deal nor a schedule for the next ministerial meeting were mentioned in a joint statement after the Singapore session.
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