Talks on a Pacific trade pact are operating on an “artificial timeframe” for completion, the U.S. Ambassador to Singapore said, as ministers prepare to meet later this month on a deal that would link an area with about $28 trillion in annual economic output.
“We will get to a final stage of TPP,” Ambassador Kirk Wagar said of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. “When that will be is an artificial timeframe,” he said in an interview today in Singapore. “It’s safe to say that everyone’s committed to getting it done as quickly as possible.”
Countries negotiating the TPP did not meet an end-2013 deadline to conclude the deal and have not announced a new time line for talks to be finished. The next round of ministerial negotiations will be held from Feb. 22 in Singapore.
The TPP would create a free-trade zone linking an area from Australia to Peru. Malaysia is among countries expressing wariness over some parts of the deal, including those related to state-owned enterprises and government procurement. Leaders from the U.S. to Malaysia and Japan also face opposition to the pact from lawmakers at home, obstacles that will have to be overcome for the agreement to be ratified.
“I see the fact that people are worrying about getting the language just right on page 18, paragraph 3, proves to me it’s an agreement people expect to be bound by,” Wagar said. “I don’t think it surprised me that many entities coming together trying to get to a final deal, that at the end part, it takes a while to get it completely right. That speaks of the value of the agreement, not any impediment.”
The TPP, championed by U.S. President Barack Obama, goes beyond typical trade deals that focus on tariffs and market access, with discussions on protection for companies that compete against government-backed businesses and stricter safeguards for patents and copyrights.
A deal may be hard to finalize this year after the deadline for completion was missed in December, Mustapa Mohamed, Malaysia’s international trade and industry minister, said in an interview on Jan. 20.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s difficult to say when” talks could be wrapped up. “You cannot rush into things. This is a very big trade pact, going beyond the conventional areas of tariffs. It’s natural that it’s taken quite some time.”
Issues for individual countries involved in the talks are well known, Wagar said. “I think they’re working through them. I know that landing zones have been identified. And it’s just getting that language that makes everyone comfortable for that final stage.”
Japan’s defense of its farming and automobile industries and reluctance to allow access for U.S. automobiles have been among issues impeding progress on the deal. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to increase agricultural efficiency in the nation’s 1.2 million rice farms and remove hurdles to his pursuit of free-trade pacts including the TPP.
In the U.S., Obama faces opposition to the deal from Congress, consumer advocates, automakers and labor unions over a range of issues.
The delay in concluding the TPP complicates the Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia, already dogged by tensions with China over the East and South China Seas. Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry in his place on a four-nation trip to Asia last October as he dealt with a partial government shutdown at home. He plans a trip to the region in April.
The countries in the pact are the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. China, which has been excluded from the TPP, is separately moving on trade talks with countries such as South Korea, Japan and Australia.