11 trade ministers reach TPP deal without US

11 trade ministers reach TPP deal without US

Members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership hold a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang on Friday. (AP photo)
Members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership hold a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang on Friday. (AP photo)

DA NANG, Vietnam: Trade ministers from 11 Pacific Rim countries agreed on Saturday to push ahead with a free-trade deal whose destiny was uncertain after US President Donald Trump abandoned it.

The new pact, called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has revised the original TPP text so that it can come into force 60 days after at least six signatories complete domestic procedures.

In coming to the agreement, the 11 countries reached a consensus on suspending 20 clauses in the original text if Washington stays out of the pact, including 11 related to intellectual property, a major concern of the United States.

"We have reached an agreement on a number of fundamental parts," Vietnamese Trade Minister Tran Tuan Anh told reporters in Da Nang, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum.

But more work must be done before leaders of the countries involved can endorse the revived TPP, said Anh and his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi.

The 11 countries remaining in the trade pact rejected by Trump in January have been working to revise the deal to allow them to proceed without US involvement. That involved a difficult balance between maintaining high standards and pragmatism, Motegi said.

"Through a pragmatic response of the officials involved we could come to an agreement," Motegi said. He said it was clear there would be a need for further changes but that differences had been narrowed down.

"The substance is something all the TPP countries can agree on," said Motegi. "This will send a very strong message to the US and the other countries in the region."

The announcement of a basic agreement was delayed by last-minute discord when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not join other leaders who gathered Friday to endorse an agreement in principle.

Questions swirled over Trudeau’s absence. However, International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Trudeau didn’t attend because another meeting ran late. There was "never an intention not to show up", he told reporters.

Despite enthusiasm for sticking with the plan following the US withdrawal, concerns over various issues persist. Detractors of the TPP say it favours corporate interests over labour and other rights. Trudeau said days before arriving in Da Nang that he would not be rushed into signing an agreement that did not suit Canada's interests.

Aspects of the trade pact have also raised hackles over a requirement that companies be allowed to sue governments for lack of enforcement of related laws.

The proposed basic agreement reached in Da Nang said that the ministers maintained "the high standards, overall balance and integrity of the TPP while ensuring the commercial and other interests of all participants and preserving our inherent right to regulate, including the flexibility of the parties to set legislative and regulatory priorities".

The US, the biggest TPP economy, had been one of its most assertive supporters before Trump took office. Trump has said he prefers country-to-country deals and is seeking to renegotiate several major trade agreements to, as he says, "put America first".

Trump reiterated his markedly different stance on trade before the 21-member Apec summit convened late Friday with a gala banquet.

"We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore," he told an Apec business conference. He lambasted the World Trade Organization and other trade forums as unfair to the United States and reiterated his preference for bilateral trade deals, saying "I am always going to put America first".

Trump said he would not enter into large trade agreements, alluding to US involvement in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the TPP.

In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the same group that nations need to stay committed to economic openness or risk being left behind.

Xi drew loud applause when he urged support for the "multilateral trading regime" and progress toward a free-trade zone in the Asia-Pacific. China is not part of the TPP.

The current TPP members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The Philippines and Thailand had expressed interest earlier in  joining, but that was before the United States pulled out.

As a developing country with a fast-growing export sector, Vietnam has a strong interest in open trade and access for its exports to consumers in the West. It was seen as possibly the biggest winner under the original TPP, taking into account the prospects for greater access to the US market.

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