US trying to railroad Pacific trade pact, activists say

SINGAPORE - Activists accused the United States on Sunday of trying to railroad a new Pacific trade pact with 11 key partners as their trade ministers entered a second day of secretive talks.

The meetings, due to end on Tuesday, are a last-gasp attempt to meet a year-end US deadline to forge a deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would cover 40 per cent of the world economy even though it currently excludes China. International activists opposed to the TPP - and corporate lobbyists, including those supporting the pact - have also descended on Singapore in an attempt to push their causes.

"The TPP, which is being negotiated behind closed doors by trade bureaucrats and nearly 600 corporate lobbyists, has provoked political uproar because its text has been kept secret from lawmakers in the countries it covers," global advocacy group Avaaz said in a statement on the sidelines of the negotiations. "If the deal is finalised, corporations will take on new powers to sue governments over regulations which threaten their future profits."

"Laws designed to protect the public, including access to cheap medicines, bans on logos on cigarette packaging, clear labelling of GM (genetically modified) products, and Internet privacy could be under threat," the group said.

Activists said Washington was trying to railroad the talks in order to meet its self-imposed deadline. US President Barack Obama has hailed the TPP as the economic centrepiece of its strategic shift towards Asia, calling it a 21st-century agreement covering non-tariff components such as the environment and labour standards.

"Nearly all of the politically sensitive issues that have arisen in the secretive, closed-door TPP talks are still unresolved," advocacy group Public Citizen said in a statement.

"So, the Obama administration has resorted to extreme tactics at Singapore to try to wring out a deal," it added.

The advocacy group claimed the US has set up by-invitation-only "green room" meetings where decisions on difficult issues can be "worked out".

"This is a very manipulative process because it marginalises those that are potential critics and makes it harder for them to continue rejecting compromised deals," said Ms Jane Kelsey, a law professor at the University of Auckland.

Mr Rodrigo Contreras, Chile's former chief TPP negotiator who quit in March, said he thought the US wanted to close a deal now with the existing texts of the proposed agreement rather than "risk" the talks extending into next year.

"But there is nothing worse than trying to close a negotiation forced," Mr Contreras told AFP by e-mail from Chile.

"(It) would not be sustainable agreement if it doesn't represent the interests of all the countries. The biggest problem would be to fail in the Congress approval on each country."