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Progress made on TPP talks, but no deal struck

Differences on tariffs on imported goods prove hard to settle

[SINGAPORE] Ministers of the 12 countries involved in the marathon Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade negotiations failed to reach a deal at the end of their latest meeting in Singapore yesterday.

While they stressed that they had made "further strides" towards a final agreement, there are still a number of hurdles to overcome.

Long-standing differences on tariffs on imported goods, in particular between Japan and the United States, are proving difficult to settle.

"Market access is, in some respects, the heart and soul of any trade agreement. Until that's done, we don't have an agreement," said New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser during a press conference at the end of the four-day ministerial meeting.

An agreement on market access between the US and Japan - which together make up 70 per cent of the total gross domestic product (GDP) of the 12 countries - is vital to a final agreement, noted Australian Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb.

Crucially, the fate of the US-led TPP continues to hang in the balance with the ministers unable to confirm exactly when they would meet again. "We have made no further plans at this point in terms of the next meetings," said US Trade Representative Michael Froman, who also did not specifically answer a question on whether there was a specific timeframe in place to conclude the negotiations.

A single-page joint statement put out by the ministers yesterday would only say that they were committed to concluding an agreement "as soon as possible".

Having failed to meet a self-imposed deadline to reach an agreement by the end of last year, there were expectations in some quarters that the deal could be concluded in time for US President Barack Obama's visit to Asia in April.

Some unconfirmed reports have suggested that the ministers could meet again in May.

Singapore is one of the founding members of the TPP. The other parties at the negotiating table are the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Chile, Mexico and Peru.

Collectively, they account for 40 per cent of global GDP and a third of world trade. The TPP, if eventually realised, would be the largest FTA in the world and is envisioned as a possible gateway to a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific region.

The door will remain closed on potential new members joining the talks until a deal between the existing group of 12 is hammered out, said the ministers. A handful of countries, including South Korea and Taiwan, have already expressed interest in entering the TPP negotiations, but it is unlikely they or others will be admitted any time soon.

"We are now at the final stage. While there have been requests and expressions of interest from a few countries, there are a lot of bilateral processes. We also have a process of making sure there's consensus among the existing 12 (countries) before a new member can be admitted," said Singapore's Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang. "All these processes will take time, and I think our main focus right now is to try and complete this deal without introducing new members and complicating the process even further."

For now, the plan is for everyone to head back home and work on the outstanding issues based on the discussions at the Singapore meeting, said Mr Froman.

"Our focus is on achieving an agreement among all 12 of us and that agreement needs to be that comprehensive, high-standard agreement. That remains our focus," he added.

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