SYDNEY (AFP) - Momentum is building towards a pan-Pacific trade agreement, representatives of Australia and the United States said on Saturday as talks between trade ministers began in Sydney.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would encompass 40 per cent of the global economy and include 12 nations, has been the subject of negotiations for years.
US President Barack Obama said in June he hoped to have an agreement on framing the deal, which has been slowed by debate on key details between the US and Japan, by November.
Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb, hosting the Sydney talks, told the opening plenary that reports from negotiators were that "there does seem to be a real head of steam". "I think a lot of progress has been made," he said. "Clearly I think we are working now to try and conclude this agreement by the end of this year."
Mr Robb admitted trade ministers had a "very big programme" during the three-day talks, which attracted a small group protesting against the "secret deal".
"I do think this agreement is starting to take some real shape," Mr Robb said.
"We are at a point where we are trying to make as many final decisions as we can and bring this thing to completion."
US Trade Representative Mike Froman said since the last TPP meeting in Singapore in May, trade ministers had been in "almost constant" negotiations.
"Going into this weekend we are enjoying a great deal of momentum and focus across the board, and it's up to us to seize that momentum and make sure that this meeting is maximally productive," he said.
The negotiations had been slowed while the United States and Tokyo debate key details, including Japanese tariffs on agricultural imports and US access to Japan's auto market.
"The issues left at the end are often times the most challenging but now is the time to start working through those and finding solutions," Mr Froman said.
"We've got some work to do and the table is set in a way that will allow us to make progress on these difficult remaining issues."
Mr Froman said there was now an opportunity to narrow differences ahead of leaders meetings in Asia in coming weeks. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in Beijing and G20 summit in Brisbane will both take place next month.
"It's very much within our grasp," he said.
Proponents of the TPP say any agreement will free up trade in goods and services across the region, reduce regulation and improve opportunities for jobs and for members generally.
But critics say the pact will favour corporate rights over those of the public, and could result in higher medicine prices, greater damage to the environment and fewer Internet freedoms.
They have also criticised the lack of details about the talks, which Australia joined in 2008.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Robb dismissed the criticisms and said the biggest risk was for the TPP to be stalled.
"Every country's got its sensitivities, as we do, and the biggest risk is that those things prevent this agreement being concluded," he told the ABC.
"Now, this weekend, three days of more consultations, hopefully will move us to a point where this thing can be completed sometime next year for the benefit of the region."
The 12 prospective TPP members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.