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."
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 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.
Activists monitoring the talks criticised the US for its negotiating tactics.
Nobuhiko Suto, a Japanese former MP from the opposition DPJ party, said the US was breaking the rules by holding parallel talks with individual countries on issues that should be discussed multilaterally.
"The US acts as if it knows everything," he told reporters at a press briefing on the sidelines of the talks.
Jane Kelsey, a law professor at the University of Auckland, called the talks a "very manipulative process because it marginalises those that are potential critics and makes it harder for them to continue rejecting compromised deals".