Ministers Pledge to Intensify TPP Talks at Singapore Meet

22 May 2014

Trade ministers and senior officials meeting in Singapore earlier this week pledged to “intensify engagement” on talks for the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, confirming a series of meetings in the coming months aimed at resolving the outstanding issues in the proposed pact.

The talks had largely been in a holding pattern over the past few months as countries waited to see whether – and to what extent – the US and Japan would be able to resolve their differences on agriculture and automobile trade.

The Singapore event was the first ministerial-level gathering since US President Barack Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April. At the time, the two leaders confirmed that they had found a “path forward” for dealing with key bilateral issues, without giving specifics on what such a path would entail. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 May 2014)

Differences between the two trading partners over how much Japan should liberalise its highly-protected farm sector – particularly in the areas of beef, pork, dairy, rice, and sugar – have been one of the most difficult disagreements to resolve. The US had reportedly been pushing for tariff elimination, which Japan has said it cannot agree to.

Tokyo has instead repeatedly asked for greater flexibility from its TPP partners, particularly given how sensitive the topic of farm trade is domestically.

Economy minister Akira Amari told journalists ahead of the Singapore meet that his country “will improve market access for other countries [to these farm sectors] as much as possible,” with media reports indicating that Tokyo may be able to make some reductions on tariffs on imported beef and pork.

Lowered expectations

Even with the “path forward” announced by Abe and Obama last month, trade officials had largely downplayed expectations for this week’s meet, with US negotiators repeatedly referring to it as a “check in” to review the talks’ progress. Only some of the TPP group’s ministers were able to attend, with the other countries being represented by their heads of delegation or chief negotiators.

In a brief statement following the 19-20 May ministerial, officials confirmed that the meetings were “positive,” and that the 12 countries involved continue to share their “long-standing commitment” to negotiate a high-ambition deal.

“We cemented our shared views on what is needed to bring negotiations to a close,” they said on Tuesday, noting that a particular focus is being placed on both market access and on the remaining rules issues.

Officials also confirmed that they had “decided on a pathway of intensified engagement over the coming weeks on market access and rules,” with the goal of building on their negotiating momentum.

“I would say there is almost a sense of urgency about capturing that momentum and holding it and using it to get ourselves a lot further down the line in the next few weeks,” Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb told reporters following the meeting.

To that end, chief negotiators are set to meet in July, while ministers will be holding bilateral discussions in the days and weeks to come in order to give the talks additional direction and tackle the most challenging topics. The document avoids any mention of a timeframe for concluding the talks, and gives little detail on the level of advances reached over the past week of discussions.

The two-day discussions in Singapore were preceded by a flurry of meetings between TPP chief negotiators, who had met in Vietnam the week prior to address a range of issues, both on rules and on goods and services market access.

According to the Office of the USTR, the rules-focused meetings touched upon legal and institutional issues; intellectual property; medical pharmaceuticals transparency and investment; environment; state-owned enterprises; textiles; rules-of-origin; and financial services, among others.

China pushes Asia-Pacific trade zone

The TPP ministerial came on the heels of a meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade ministers in the Chinese city of Qingdao, where the topic of a pact for the entire 21-country regional group was reportedly pushed by China.

The idea of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), as the free trade zone would be known, dates back several years, with APEC economies agreeing in 2006 to look into the long-term possibility of such an arrangement. In 2010, the group agreed to take “concrete steps” in this area.

Since then, trade observers have watched to see what model might emerge for such a pact, and who might lead it, especially in light of the push to conclude a TPP in the near future. China is not a member of the 12-country talks, though it has expressed interest in learning more about the negotiations, and many analysts have suggested that the TPP could be an effort to contain the Asian giant.

Eighteen months ago, a separate initiative, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), was launched, featuring China, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and five other countries. (See Bridges Weekly, 21 November 2012)

Though some of the RCEP membership overlaps with that of the TPP, this effort notably does not include the US, leaving analysts wonder whether this deal could become a rival to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. RCEP participants are currently preparing to hold their fifth negotiating round.

A specific date for reaching an APEC-wide trade zone was reportedly raised by China during the APEC ministers’ meeting, according to the Wall Street Journal. The country’s negotiators were originally pushing for the final statement to openly endorse 2025 as a potential target, along with agreeing to undertake a “feasibility study” on the subject, though both ideas failed to receive the necessary backing from other countries.

The wording of the final communiqué omits a mention of a date, with Asia-Pacific trade ministers agreeing instead to “strengthen [their] cooperation with intensified focus on the foundation for APEC’s contribution to eventual realisation of an FTAAP by taking concrete steps forward in 2014.”

Trade ministers also agreed to launch a committee that would coordinate and advance APEC’s work toward eventually reaching such a free trade zone, and ramp up efforts on achieving transparency within the group on their other bilateral and regional trade initiatives.

The new committee would also work to improve capacity-building activities within APEC, intensify work toward developing a roadmap for APEC’s contribution to the FTAAP goal, and enhance analytical work in this area.

ICTSD reporting; “Trade ministers see headway on trans-Pacific pact, but thorny issues remain,” REUTERS, 20 May 2014; “China Pushes its New Pacific Free-Trade Zone at APEC Meeting,” WALL STREET JOURNAL, 18 May 2014; “Trade ministers seek to kick-start Pacific RIM pact,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 18 May 2014; “RCEP talks should focus on early harvest,” CHINA DAILY, 13 May 2014; “Asia-Pacific Trade Talks Resume With Aim to Resolve U.S.-Japan Impasse,” WALL STREET JOURNAL, 19 May 2014.

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