Negotiations for a Pacific Rim free trade agreement made very good progress this week in Singapore, a U.S. trade representative said Friday.
Negotiators from nine countries hope to make substantial progress on the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, by the next summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group, or APEC, in November in Honolulu, Barbara Weisel told reporters Friday after the sixth round of talks. Leaders at last year's APEC summit pledged to have the pact ready by this year's meeting.
Australia, Malaysia, Peru, the United States, and Vietnam are seeking to join a trade bloc of Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore to form the TPP.
Some APEC member governments see it as a building block for a free trade area that encompasses all of Asia and the Pacific _ from behemoths China and the U.S. to tiny Brunei and New Zealand. Slashing tariffs and other barriers to imports and investments, it would cover half the world's commerce and two-fifths of its trade.
"We have made very good progress in this round," Weisel said. "I think it's really been a boost for negotiations."
She would not say when negotiations could be completed.
"We have a ways to go on a number of issues," Weisel said. "There are a number of very sensitive and controversial issues that we remain to reach agreement on," she said, declining to elaborate.
Intellectual property rights and government subsidies for agriculture will likely be among the biggest obstacles to reaching an agreement.
"Intellectual property rights have always been an area that is a bit more sensitive for some countries," said Ng Bee Kim, Singapore's chief negotiator.
Japan, Canada, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan have also observed talks or expressed interest in Trans Pacific Partnership membership.
Japan's possible entry to the pact has proven the most controversial. Japanese business leaders say the country must join or suffer a competitive disadvantage, but farmers are opposed because of worries that cheaper imports would ruin them.
A group of U.S. Republican senators has urged President Barack Obama to encourage Japanese leaders to relax restrictions on U.S. beef before Japan is considered for TPP negotiations.
"Japan is not at the table with us at this moment," Ng said. "When Japan is ready, we'll be ready to engage them."
The next round of talks will be in Vietnam on June 20 to 24.