[WASHINGTON] Top trade representatives of 12 Pacific Rim countries begin two days of talks in Atlanta on Wednesday hoping to finalise the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement after July negotiations in Hawaii failed.
The United States is pushing hard for the 12-country deal to create the world's largest free trade region, hoping to lock in rules that global trade giant China would eventually have to heed.
A handful of issues bogged down the talks in Hawaii, including how the US treats imports of Japanese auto parts, the length of patent protections for increasingly important biologic drugs, and open markets for dairy products from major producers such as New Zealand.
Joshua Melzer, a trade expert at the Brookings Institution and a former Australian trade negotiator, said there was still work to do but an agreement was in sight.
"I think the prospects are good for the deal to be done this week," he said.
But nothing was certain, with vocal public groups raising objections to a number of issues under discussion and, more generally, to the secrecy of the talks.
In Ottawa Tuesday, tractor-driving dairy farmers with a handful of cows blocked roads to Canada's parliament to protest the possible opening up of the country's milk market to imports under the TPP.
Dairy Farmers of Canada president Wally Smith said the pact is "endangering the stability and viability of our industry."
'90 PER CENT AGREED'
The meeting of the trade ministers from the 12 TPP countries - Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam - will follow four days of detailed discussions between their negotiators in the southern US city.
A deal would lower trade and investment barriers and strengthen intellectual property protections in countries comprising about 40 per cent of the global economy.
According to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, the stimulus from the TPP pact could add US$295 billion in annual global income after the 10-year implementation period.
The negotiations have left out China, which Washington sees as not committed to free trade and which has taken steps to organize its own Asia-region trade grouping.
TPP negotiators are aiming to present a final, unalterable agreement for ratification to the governments, an approach that has angered legislators and civil society groups in a number of the countries, especially the United States.
Critics say what they know of the discussions favors the needs of industry groups by giving more protection on drug patents; establishing an extra-legal investor-state dispute settlement regime; and does little to assure enforcement of environmental and labor standards.
"Despite the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the TPP negotiations, leaks of TPP documents are fueling opposition in many TPP countries," said the Washington activist group Public Citizen.
Canberra's Trade Minister Andrew Robb told the Australian Financial Review that 90 per cent of the issues had been settled going into this week's discussions.
"There are unresolved issues, but hopefully these aren't intractable," he said. "A conclusion remains within imminent reach." Melzer said that even if a deal is reached this week, it will be months before it goes to government's for ratification.
For the United States, that could mean that a potentially hostile Congress recieves that pact in April or May, just as the 2016 presidential election hits high gear.
Many of the Republican hopefuls have already attacked the deal, but Mr Melzer said that it is possible that the final candidates, if they are relative moderates, won't try to make a big issue out of it.
If a deal is struck, it could become a model for the even larger Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) Washington is negotiating with the European Union.