US-led Pacific trade pact under discussion in Singapore

SINGAPORE - Asia Pacific trade ministers began a fresh round of talks in Singapore on Saturday for a huge US-led Pacific free trade area, hoping to conclude a deal this year after missing a deadline in 2013.

The four-day meeting of ministers from 12 countries covered by the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) comes after their chief negotiators completed five days of talks also held in the city-state.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said ahead of the meeting that negotiators were "very close" to completing a pact this year, but some ministers involved in negotiating the agreement think it could take longer.

Trade ministers from Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam reconvened in Singapore after ending talks in December with several issues still unresolved.

The 12 countries, which make up 40 per cent of the global economy, have been divided on a number of issues, including opening up Japan's auto and farm markets as well as limiting the role of state-owned enterprises in the economy.

Non-government groups like the humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) are also opposing what they say are attempts by pharmaceutical firms to restrict access to cheap generic drugs through intellectual property rights provisions in the TPP.

"We are making good progress," Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb told reporters as the talks began at a hotel in Singapore. When asked if a deal can be reached by the end of this year he said: "Yes, most certainly."

Negotiators missed a US-proposed deadline to strike a deal by the end of last year.

Malaysian Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed, speaking to reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, would not give a timeline on when the talks would be concluded.

Malaysia's trade ministry said only eight of the 29 chapters in the proposed agreement have been finalised and they are not the most controversial or significant sections.

US President Barack Obama's administration has put a high priority on the TPP, seeing it as tying the US more firmly to the dynamic Asia Pacific region at a time that China's clout is rising.

But some countries say crucial to the TPP talks succeeding is the US Congress granting Obama the "fast track" authority to negotiate major trade deals that the US legislature could approve or reject with no amendments allowed before they vote.

However the granting of such powers, under the Trade Promotion Authority, faces tough opposition from House Democrats who feel they are too far-reaching.

Singapore's Lee, in an interview with Chinese media group Caixin, said the powers would ensure that US lawmakers would not be able to vote down items in the TPP that they were not in favour of as the pact is a negotiated package.

Mr Mohamed said: "In my view, some countries are looking at this and it will certainly affect negotiations. It will become a bit more difficult."