TPP talks go slowly

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN - Negotiators from 12 Pacific countries concluded a week of talks in Brunei on a free-trade agreement on Friday but announced no breakthroughs in discussions that one official called "difficult".

A Japanese farmer carries bundles of rice straw home after the harvest in her field 80 kilometers east of Tokyo in Chiba prefecture. Local farmers fear the potential impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on their livelihoods. (EPA photo)

The effort pushed by US President Barack Obama to create an Asia-Pacific free-trade area covering nearly 40% of global economic output has run into turbulence amid protectionist reflexes, casting doubt on hopes of concluding the pact by year-end.

"Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiators intensified their work this week to close gaps between them ... to discuss possible landing zones on remaining sensitive and challenging issues," a joint statement said, giving no substantive details.

But a senior Malaysian trade official said negotiators made little progress.

"I know it was a difficult round," the official told AFP, providing no specifics.

The talks have been shrouded in secrecy through 19 rounds since 2010, hosted by the countries involved.

The TPP has stirred protests in various countries amid fears it could leave domestic markets exposed to foreign competition.

Washington wants negotiations completed this year.

"I don't think it is a realistic timeline," the Malaysian official said, adding that the country's government was yet to decide whether it would ultimately remain in the effort.

"We have reached a critical stage. So now we need to assess, to take stock - what if we continue, what if we don't."

Powerful agriculture lobbies in Japan are resisting the TPP and concerns have been raised that Japanese demands for exceptions may present a sticking point.

"There was no sector that did not make any progress (in Brunei)," Koji Tsuruoka, Japan's chief TPP negotiator, told a news conference in the sultanate on Friday.

"On the other hand, there was no sector that has been resolved and completed."

Malaysian Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed last week said his country had "serious difficulties" with the potential impact on state-owned firms.

The TPP joint statement said further meetings were expected in the coming weeks but gave no specifics.

However, Japanese media said a gathering of top negotiators was being arranged for Sept 18-21 in Washington.

Delegates have previously expressed hopes of concluding the pact in time for a major economic summit in October.

The annual summit of the 21-economy Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) bloc is being held this year in Bali, Indonesia.

Apec includes all 12 TPP countries - Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told visiting US President Obama in November last year that Thailand was interested in joining the TPP but still had reservations as the country needed to study its details.

For now, Thailand is committed to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would comprise the 10 Asean member states plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. The first round of RCEP negotiations took place in Brunei in May.

If formed in 2015 as scheduled, the RCEP would have a combined population of 3.35 billion and a gross domestic product of nearly US$18 trillion, or 27% of global GDP.

Related search: Brunei, trade, diplomacy, TPP, US, Apec, Thailand, Barack Obama, Yingluck Shinawatra

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