U.S. deadline looms over negotiations on Trans-Pacific Partnership
US Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the US-South Korea partnership and US policy in the Asia-Pacific region at Yonsei University in Seoul on Dec. 6, 2013 [AFP]

Trade ministers from the United States and 11 other countries will open talks in Singapore on Saturday in an attempt to meet a US deadline to forge a trans-Pacific trade pact before the end of the year.

However, analysts said an agreement on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was unlikely to be reached during the four-day meeting, owing to differences on key issues such as intellectual property protection.

The TPP is being negotiated by 12 nations -- Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam -- that together make up 40 percent of the global economy.

Washington has spearheaded the secretive talks, which have been denounced by non-government groups for their alleged lack of transparency.

President Barack Obama has hailed the TPP as a centrepiece of renewed US engagement in Asia, saying it contains market-opening commitments that go well beyond those made in other free-trade accords.

But the complexity of the issues has already caused negotiators to miss the original 2012 deadline set by Obama to reach a deal, with the new target also looking unlikely.

"They aren't very far away from a deal but my own guess is that they are more likely to conclude around March," said Deborah K. Elms, a specialist on the TPP at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

She said that the year-end deadline had "looked problematic for months" and that the ministers were taking advantage of the opportunity to meet on their way back from the just-concluded World Trade Organization talks in Bali.

Elms, however, said there was a "very slim chance" that the ministers might announce a "political agreement".

"This means that they take the photographs in Singapore... and announce a deal and then finish up the hard parts later," said Elms, head of the Temasek Foundation Centre for Trade and Negotiations at RSIS.

"But this strategy seems a bit risky to me, as it means that they really have to sort out the last remaining tough spots and do it rather hastily afterwards. So I suspect they will not attempt this approach."

US Vice President Joe Biden, who is in South Korea on the final leg of a Northeast Asia tour, said that more work would be needed to secure a deal before the year-end deadline.

"We have to end the bureaucratic hurdles that close off trading in key sector trading like autos and agriculture," said Biden, who also welcomed South Korea's interest in joining the TPP talks.

"We have to agree on final regulations that allow financial institutions to operate fully."

While in Japan on Tuesday, Biden pushed Tokyo to step up efforts to open its auto and farm markets.

Foreign automakers have long complained that Japanese authorities erect huge barriers to its lucrative market and Tokyo has insisted it will never lift all tariffs on sensitive farm products amid strong domestic opposition to opening up the sector.

TPP negotiators have also been divided over patent issues, in particular on medicines.

US negotiators, backed by the powerful pharmaceuticals industry, want drug companies to extend patent protection beyond the typical 20-year limit.

Drug firms say this is necessary to allow them to recover investments and continue research for fresh cures.

But activist groups like humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) say such patent protection would restrict access to cheaper generic drugs for millions of poor people.

Negotiators are also ironing out kinks over a provision that allows companies in any of the TPP countries to bid for government procurement contracts within the trade grouping.

There are also disagreements over textiles as well as on the treatment of state-owned enterprises deemed to have an undue advantage over private firms, analysts said.

Elms, the Singapore-based trade expert, said the wrangling was unlikely to derail an agreement, but governments need to do a much better job at explaining the benefits of the TPP to their domestic constituents to ease opposition.

"I think that as soon as some of the important political compromises are struck to remove some important logjams in two or three areas on the list, the rest will fall quickly into place relatively quickly," Elms said.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]