HAKONE, KANAGAWA PREF. – Chief negotiators from the 11 Trans-Pacific Partnership countries met Wednesday in the hot-spring resort town of Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, to discuss how to breathe fresh life into the massive free trade deal after the U.S. withdrew.
Kazuyoshi Umemoto, the chair of the meeting, said at the outset of the gathering that he is determined to discuss “possible options for the early entry into force of the TPP” before their leaders gather in November for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam.
“Time is not so abundant, so we very much hope we can achieve as much as possible in this meeting,” Umemoto said.
Currently, the TPP pact can come into force only after at least six countries that account for 85 percent or more of the original 12 signatories’ combined gross domestic product complete domestic procedures.
Since the United States alone represented more than 60 percent of the initial members’ GDP, doing so under the present terms is impossible.
Japan, the largest economy among the 11 members, hopes to reach an agreement to alter those requirements without looking again at the content of the pact after years of negotiations before it was finally inked in February 2016.
But some countries may call for fresh negotiations on the content, including on tariffs.
Vietnam and Malaysia, which agreed to ease domestic regulations and open their markets in return for access to the huge U.S. market, are believed to be reluctant to go ahead with the deal without the United States.
The chief negotiators’ meeting in Hakone, expected to last at least two days, follows their trade ministers’ summit in May on the sidelines of an APEC gathering, where they agreed to “launch a process to assess options to bring (the TPP) into force expeditiously.”
In a reference to the United States, the ministers also said at the time that they will discuss “how to facilitate membership for the original signatories” that had later opted out.
Nobuteru Ishihara, minister in charge of TPP affairs, told a news conference Tuesday that Japan hopes to push forward discussions on the pact’s early implementation, “including how to bring the United States back.”
“Although TPP 11 is acceptable, Asian countries are aiming for the U.S. market in the end,” Ishihara said, adding that the discussions in Hakone will not be the final ones before November’s summit. Chief negotiators, he said, will likely meet again in September.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced Washington’s TPP pullout soon after taking office in January, stressing his preference for bilateral trade deals and claiming that the multilateral pact hurt American jobs.
The announcement, coming as a rejection of predecessor Barack Obama’s promotion of the deal as a centerpiece of his “Asia pivot” policy, has since clouded the outlook for the trade pact.
Japan and the European Union agreed Thursday on a broad free trade deal after more than four years of talks, creating a market of 640 million people and covering nearly a third of the global economy, in a move they say underscores the importance of free trade.
The TPP was signed by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam — amounting to around 40 percent of the global economy.