BEIJING (Reuters) - There will be no "major announcement" on a Washington-backed Asia Pacific free trade deal during a meeting of leaders from the region in Beijing this week, US Trade Representative Michael Froman said on Sunday.
Few expected that a deal on the ambitious 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could be reached this year, largely because of a deadlock between the pact's two biggest economies, the United States and Japan, over how widely Japan will open its doors to farm exports.
Business leaders, however, have been looking for indications of momentum on TPP talks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum which runs through Tuesday.
"There certainly will not be a final agreement, an agreement, a major announcement," Froman told reporters during an APEC briefing when asked about the TPP talks. "This is an opportunity when we have leaders altogether in one place for them to take stock of where they are and give political impetus to complete the rest of the negotiations."
The United States insists that Japan lower barriers to agricultural imports, but Tokyo wants to protect sensitive products including pork, beef, dairy and sugar.
Some TPP partners hope that whatever is agreed between the United States and Japan will serve as a blueprint for bilateral agreements with other countries.
China is pushing for a separate trade liberalisation framework called the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) at APEC, but some see a proposed study on the plan as a way to divert attention from the TPP, which excludes China.
The TPP, which would span from Asia to the Americas and cover 40 per cent of the world economy, is a key part of the US effort to build stronger ties with Asia amid China's rise.
US President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and leaders from the 10 other countries negotiating the TPP are set to meet in Beijing on Monday.
Japan issued a statement after Abe's bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, saying the leaders agreed on the "need to confirm the political determination to settle a deal" at Monday's TPP meeting.
Myron Brilliant, Executive Vice President of the US Chamber of Commerce, told Reuters the business community was looking for a sign.
"Everyone wants to see leadership from President Obama and Prime Minister Abe in closing the deal. If that is clear and decisive coming out of these meetings, we have a chance of wrapping up TPP soon," Brilliant said.
Many business leaders say that Republican wins in the recent US mid-term elections may ease the passage of a potential TPP deal through the U.S. Congress.
"My sense is that the odds were long before the mid-terms, but they narrowed a bit. I think it has a better chance today than it did a week ago," Douglas Oberhelman, CEO of construction equipment maker Caterpillar Inc., told Reuters.
Chin Leng Lim, a trade expert and professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said there should be a TPP deal before US presidential electioneering picks up next summer if it is to avoid US domestic political hurdles.
"Your window is pretty tight. You're looking at getting it done by the spring if you want to get it done," Lim said. "That's not a bad thing for negotiations, because all the other parties in the TPP know that as well."