Pacific free-trade talks unlikely to go anywhere until after US midterm polls

Latest talks end without even date for next meeting, casting doubt on prospect of further progress until after US midterm elections

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 3:15am

Negotiators of a Pacific Rim free-trade initiative still see no clear path to signing an agreement, six months after missing their primary deadline at the end of last year.

Chief negotiators of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from Japan, the United States and 10 other countries wrapped up their meeting on Saturday in Ottawa without agreement, even on a date for the next meeting, due to major differences over contentious issues such as intellectual property.

Observers say some negotiators may start questioning whether the TPP talks can maintain momentum as the United States, the leader of the process, is unable to make any game-changing decisions in the coming months due to midterm elections in November.

The TPP negotiations also include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

A senior lawmaker of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party regards the US elections as "one of the most important factors" in determining whether the 12 countries can strike a TPP deal.

"The negotiations could run out of steam and get bogged down if there is a pause after the US elections," said Koya Nishikawa after the chief negotiators wrapped up their meeting without major progress.

"Representatives from every country understand it."

"Time is really running out in the US political calendar," said Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

A point in late 2015 might effectively be the deadline for concluding a TPP, as campaigning for the 2016 US presidential election would begin then, he added.

The chief negotiators and other trade officials involved in the TPP process were baffled when US President Barack Obama abruptly suggested last month that a TPP document be hammered out by November.

Koji Tsuruoka, Japan's chief TPP negotiator, said he and his counterparts from the 11 countries did not even discuss Obama's proposal in the latest round in the Canadian capital.

"The chief TPP negotiators cannot see any path to the future unless they meet again," he said.

A lack of progress in bilateral talks between Japan and the US, the largest economies in the TPP, has also helped stall the plenary process, which originally began in 2010 with nine countries.

Japan joined the talks, aimed at creating a free trade zone that would contain some 40 per cent of global gross domestic output, nearly a year ago as a latecomer.

Japan seeks exceptional tariffs on some agricultural produce to protect farmers under a TPP and Abe's government has showed no sign of major concessions.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and some US agricultural groups proposed expelling Japan from the TPP negotiations if Tokyo stuck to the position.

But Edward Fast, Canadian international trade minister, expressed opposition to any TPP without Japan during the latest meeting.

Tsuruoka suggested Tokyo was fully aware of "strong interest" among other countries in the fate of bilateral talks with the US.

Kyodo, Reuters