Talks on a multilateral Pacific free trade agreement entered the final stretch as trade ministers from 12 countries kicked off a meeting Tuesday for make-or-break bargaining toward creating the world’s largest free trade zone in decades.

The four-day meeting on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative on the Hawaiian island of Maui is viewed as the final opportunity to cut a deal by the end of the year. No further negotiating session is on the horizon given tight political schedules in the United States and some other member economies.

The trade chiefs “shared the goal of reaching a broad agreement during the current ministerial meeting,” said Japanese Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Akira Amari after the first day of talks. Amari is Japan’s envoy to the negotiations.

Expectations for striking a deal in Hawaii rose after U.S. President Barack Obama late last month signed the Trade Promotion Authority bill into law, giving him the power to negotiate international trade deals with limited interference from lawmakers.

As an agreement takes shape, opponents of the controversial trade pact are intensifying their criticism, saying the TPP would push up medical costs, jeopardize the farming sector and food safety, and adversely affect people’s lives for the sake of big corporations’ profits.

Public Citizen, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, said in a statement: “Whether or not any real deal is made, a ‘breakthrough’ likely will be announced. But for whom would it be a breakthrough?

“For many people in the TPP countries, a deal based on the current text would not be good news.”

Negotiation sources said the talks are in the end-game after chief negotiators thrashed out outstanding problems in the run-up to the ministerial meeting, but some thorny issues still remain to be resolved by the ministers. The course of the negotiations will not become clear “until the last five minutes,” said one Japanese source.

The United States and Japan, the two largest economies accounting for some 80 percent of gross domestic product in the TPP framework, are seen as being very close to settling differences, but they still have the difficult task of finalizing a bilateral agreement on opening up the Japanese rice market and abolishing U.S. tariffs on autos.

Prior to the plenary ministerial session on Tuesday, Amari met with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. According to people familiar with the Japan-U.S. talks, Washington is likely to be considering scrapping its tariffs on many auto-related products as soon as a pact takes effect, in response to Tokyo’s calls for expanding imports of Japanese automotive parts.

But Amari said it would be “difficult” to settle all the remaining issues between the United States on Tuesday, and he plans to meet with Froman “several times” during the Hawaii session.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do through bilateral talks, small groups and plenary sessions,” Froman said at the outset of the meeting with Amari, which was open to the press.

People involved in the TPP are also concerned over a delay in talks on the patent protection period for some medicines, which could affect the availability of generic medicines, an issue being discussed in the intellectual property chapter.

The United States, which had insisted the period be set at 12 years to protect the profits of pharmaceutical firms, is now considering a compromise of setting the period at shorter than 10 years, according to the sources. However, it remains uncertain if Australia, which has proposed a much-shorter five-year monopoly period to promote generic medicines production, would accept the new U.S. offer.

Canada’s resistance to liberalizing its protected dairy and poultry markets also remains one of the biggest sticking points, although Ottawa has been showing more flexibility in Hawaii, the sources added.

The trade ministers are expected to hold a joint news conference on Friday afternoon.

The TPP, which would cover some 40 percent of global output, involves Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.