Trans-Pacific trade pact deadline in doubt as talks start in S'pore

Trans-Pacific trade pact deadline in doubt as talks start in S'pore
Singapore Minister of Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang (L) speaks as US trade representative Michael Froman listens during the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on December 7, 2013.

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."

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