Free trade support limited to words at talks among Trans-Pacific Partnership countries

SANTIAGO (Bloomberg) - The Pacific Rim trade talks in Chile that were meant to send "an important political signal" in support of free trade ended Wednesday (March 15) with no final declaration after Singapore was the only Asian nation to send a ministerial-level delegation.

Chile had called the meeting of 15 countries after President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and said he wanted to renegotiate or scrap the North American trade accord, Nafta. 

Still, anyone hoping the meeting would shed light on replacement trade accords was disappointed.

"It is far too soon to say the agreement itself is finished," New Zealand's Trade Minister Todd McClay said in reference to the TPP.

"We will use the next couple of months to analyze this further."

The four-nation Pacific Alliance and the members of the TPP, except for the US, both issued statements backing free trade during the meetings. Yet, there were no specific proposals for the future of the 12-nation TPP, or rival blocs, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes China, or Asean.

"We think there could be a form of TPP that could go ahead without the US," McClay said Wednesday in Chile. "But we also want to keep the door open to the US and other countries to continue playing a role in the Asia Pacific."

Australia's Trade Minister Steven Ciobo also said it was "very much worth" keeping the TPP alive. Speaking at a separate interview in Chile Wednesday, Ciobo said he didn't want the gains of the TPP talks to "slip through our fingers."

Rex Tillerson The meeting in Chile coincided with the beginning of Rex Tillerson's first trip to Asia as US secretary of state. Tillerson will visit Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing and while most of the attention will be focused on North Korea, he will have to address concerns that Trump could wage a trade war against China.

In the meantime, the Chinese sent a low-level delegation to Chile, headed by special representative for Latin American affairs Yin Hengmin. His American counterpart at the meeting was US Ambassador to Chile Carol Perez.

"The United States still doesn't have its teams in place and it is difficult to talk to a country that doesn't know in which direction it is going," said Patricio Navia, a political scientist with New York University.

"If the US unleashes a trade war against China, it will make no sense to have conversations" about Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum or the TPP.

Still, the withdrawal of the US from the TPP presented new opportunities, Mexico's Foreign Relations Minister Luis Videgaray said in Chile Wednesday. The agreement had developed a "new commercial standard" which could be used in any future talks.

Pacific Alliance

With little action on the regionwide trade blocs, it was up to the Pacific Alliance of Mexico, Peru, Chile and Colombia to carry the torch for free trade, announcing that they would start to negotiate new accords as a bloc.

The Alliance will introduce the new status of associate countries, paving the way for trade talks, Chile's Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz said Tuesday. Both Australia and New Zealand said they would seek associate status.

"We'll be working more closely with the Pacific Alliance for the next month or so to ensure that New Zealand is one of the first countries to have the associate membership," McClay said.

Then New Zealand can "reach an agreement on a high quality comprehensive trade deal very quickly."