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Trudeau's no-show at meeting throws spanner in TPP talks

Mr Trudeau arriving in Da Nang on Friday. He had said in Ho Chi Minh City the day before that Canada would not be arm-twisted into agreeing to anything unless the terms were right for its people and the world.

Da Nang, Vietnam

THERE was confusion and drama in Da Nang on Friday as a meeting of world leaders involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact was unexpectedly scrapped after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to turn up at the venue.

They were supposed to have met to discuss the future of the TPP, amid the differing points of view over how to proceed with the deal following the abrupt withdrawal of the United States in January.

The so-called TPP-11 is made up of Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

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In the messy build-up to the scheduled leaders' meeting on Friday, chief negotiators and trade ministers had, over numerous meetings, tried to iron out an agreement, even an in-principle one, for the leaders to discuss and endorse.

Following marathon talks that ended late on Thursday night, the Japanese government issued a positive statement on Friday morning, saying that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed the "broad agreement" that had been reached by the TPP-11.

That, however, was quickly disputed by Canada, which insisted that there was no such agreement.

Sources close to the discussions, however, said that while the TPP ministers did come to an agreement on a package deal and the legal instrument for the TPP on Thursday night, Canada was unable to proceed with the leaders' meeting on Friday.

The ministers met again on Friday night to reaffirm that the package deal had been struck, and they plan to issue a joint statement on Saturday, the sources said.

There were some tell-tale signs earlier that not every country was on the same page in terms of wanting to reach an agreement in Da Nang.

On Thursday, Mr Trudeau told a forum in Ho Chi Minh City that Canada would not be arm-twisted to agree to anything until it felt the terms were right for its people.

"We're not going to sign a deal just because we feel pressured into a signing a deal. We are going to make sure that it's right for Canada and it's right for the world," he said.

"We're in no rush to do that, so we're going to take our time and look carefully at the negotiations."

The fate of the TPP has been in limbo ever since President Donald Trump yanked the world's largest economy out of the deal early this year.

The original TPP would have been the world's largest free-trade agreement (FTA), covering 40 per cent of the global economy. Now, with the US out of the picture, the 11 nations represent just a third of that, or about 13.5 per cent.

The TPP aims to eliminate tariffs on industrial and farm products, with provisions for protecting everything from labour rights to the environment to intellectual property.

Ever since the US withdrew, Japan - the world's third-largest economy - has been spearheading the effort to revive the deal. Tokyo is eager to show that multilateral trade pacts can be successful without America's support.

At almost the same time as the TPP leaders were scheduled to meet on Friday, Mr Trump gave a major speech at the Apec CEO Summit and reiterated his disinterest in free-trade deals between multiple countries.

He maintained that Washington would make bilateral pacts its main priority, and added that the US was ready to make a bilateral deal with any country in the Indo-Pacific region, but only on the basis of "mutual respect and mutual benefit".

Speaking to reporters in Da Nang, Singapore Business Federation (SBF) chief executive officer Ho Meng Kit expressed disappointment that the TPP talks had collapsed at the 11th hour.

"Up until lunch time (on Friday), I was very hopeful. SBF even had a statement that was ready to be issued (to welcome the news of an agreement). Unfortunately, it didn't happen, and I'm not sure why," he said. "What's needed now is for the countries to go back, look at their sums again, and re-engage."

He added the latest setback was not as damaging as when the US withdrew from the pact.

"My overall sense is that the 11 countries are like-minded and they believe in openness, and they all believe in having a comprehensive and high-quality agreement," he said.

READ MORE: Out of Asia and into the Indo-Pacific