Pacific Trade Partners Working on Final Stages for Agreement: U.S. Official

Pacific Rim trading partners are working to resolve the last thorny issues in sealing an ambitious free trade pact and are likely to have further high-level talks next month, a senior U.S. trade official said on Wednesday.

Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler said sensitive and difficult issues were typically the ones worked out in the final stages of any trade agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership was in that phase now.

“We are now in the end-game of the TPP negotiations and momentum is mounting to close the remaining gaps in the agreement,” she told a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference.

“The TPP countries are now in the process of scheduling the next meeting of TPP ministers, which is likely to take place next month.”

The United States had aimed to finish the TPP in 2013 but the last round of negotiations in December failed to reach an agreement. Cutler declined to give a new target for finalizing the pact, which would span 12 countries making up nearly 40 percent of the global economy.

Outstanding issues in the TPP include levels of intellectual property and environmental protection and market access for agricultural products, a major sticking point for countries including Japan, the United States and Australia.

The United States is also facing a policy fight close to home over whether the White House should be granted fast-track authority to close the TPP and other trade deals and put them before Congress for an up or down vote without amendments.

Republican lawmakers have urged the U.S. administration to do more to push fast-track legislation currently before Congress. The proposed bill has been criticized by some members of President Barack Obama’s Democrats for having insufficient protection for local workers and industry.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who will meet with some of his TPP counterparts on the sidelines of global economic talks in Davos this week, said the Obama administration was keen to get Congress to approve this so-called Trade Promotion Authority.

“The administration has made clear that we’d like to get TPA, we’d like it to have as broad bipartisan support as possible,” he told reporters before leaving for Davos.

Securing fast-track authority would be seen as a boost for TPP talks between the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Chile, Mexico and Peru. Mexico’s economy minister said last week the pact could be wrapped up as early as April.

(Reporting by Krista Hughes; editing by Andrew Hay)