Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Talks to Carry On to Next Round

By Elaine Kurtenbach 26 February 2014

TOKYO — Negotiators ended talks on a comprehensive trans-Pacific trade pact on Tuesday without a final agreement, but said they were pleased with the progress they had made in Singapore despite persisting conflicts over agricultural tariffs and other issues.

Another round of talks is planned, possibly in May in Qingdao, China, on the sidelines of a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

“All the ministers are leaving here now fully committed to getting this done,” US Trade Representative Michael Froman told reporters in a conference call. He described the talks as “very good.”

As this round of talks drew to an inconclusive end, Japan’s head delegate to the talks, Akira Amari, said that wide gaps remained, but he was committed to resolving them.

“We would like to move things forward swiftly amid tight political schedules,” Kyodo News service quoted Amari as saying.

Differences with Japan over its tariffs on agricultural imports, including a nearly 800 percent import tax on rice, remain an important issue, but not the only one dividing the 12 nations involved in the talks, Froman said.

“There are gaps that remain, clearly. But our teams are working to try to bridge them,” he said.

Froman and Amari met twice during the five-day session but failed to resolve the problems. But they left a news conference that concluded the talks smiling and shaking hands.

US President Barack Obama backed the plan for the trade pact as part of an effort to drastically boost US exports and promote integration around the Pacific Rim, counterbalancing China’s growing sway. But ironing out differences among participating countries, which also include Peru, New Zealand, Malaysia and Canada, is proving a challenge.

Originally, the members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership had sought to reach a deal by the end of 2013. When that failed, they set their sights on the talks this week in Singapore.

The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said US officials were considering an agreement that might initially exclude Japan.

Asked if that was true, Froman said the negotiators from all countries were determined to stick to their goal of an “ambitious, high standards and comprehensive trade agreement.”

“None of the parties were tempted or stressed the perspective that we should reduce the level of ambition or coverage … in order to meet a deadline,” he said.

Froman said the negotiators had made progress this time on pledges for reform of state-owned enterprises and investments in services and telecommunications. But other issues such as government procurement rules remain.

When Japan committed to joining the trade arrangement, it said it would insist on protecting key farm products. The Yomiuri said one option may be to eliminate tariffs on products not imported before 2010, presumably because such items would be less likely to fall into categories traditionally protected by Japan. It is unclear how many or what types of products that might entail. But that concession would not fully meet the targets being sought by the US side, the report said.