SINGAPORE - Trade ministers from the United States and 11 other countries opened talks 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, and activists slammed the US for its "manipulative" tactics in a bid to get a deal done.
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 per cent of the global economy.
Washington has spearheaded the secretive talks, which have been denounced by non-government groups for their alleged lack of transparency.
The ministers, who arrived in Singapore from the just-concluded World Trade Organisation talks in Bali, did not issue any statement as they began the meeting.
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 already "looked problematic for months" as differences remained.
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."