• Kyodo

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Officials from 12 Pacific Rim countries on Monday wrapped up four days of talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, setting the stage for what many hope will be the final round of negotiations on the most ambitious trade deal in decades.

Akira Amari, Japan’s minister in charge of TPP negotiations, said significant progress was made as a result of “tough” bargaining between chief negotiators in the run-up to a crucial four-day ministerial session starting Tuesday on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

“I have an impression that there has been substantial progress,” Amari told reporters after arriving in Hawaii.

The minister reiterated that he hoped this round of talks would be the last, and said that he believed “each nation shares the same thoughts.”

Although Washington, which has led the TPP initiative, is putting pressure on other members to finalize a deal, some negotiation sources are skeptical about whether the ministers will be able to agree on details in Hawaii given huge remaining gaps in some areas.

Among the more difficult issues include liberalization of protected industries, the length of patents for new medicines, and reform of state-owned companies heavily protected in some economies.

Amari admitted that negotiations on intellectual property had been extremely difficult during the chief negotiators’ meeting.

One negotiation source said the 12 countries are “working as one” toward concluding their talks in Hawaii, but the outlook remains uncertain as the trickiest issues will be tackled last.

A TPP deal has been delayed since member nations missed the initially proposed goal of reaching a broad agreement by the end of 2013.

The Hawaii session is viewed as a last opportunity to sign a deal by the end of the year, given the United States will soon be preoccupied with campaigning for the 2016 presidential election.

The TPP, if realized, would create one of the world’s largest free trade zones, covering some 40 percent of the global economy.

The United States, Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam launched negotiations in 2010, with Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan joining later.

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