TPP leaders' meeting called off after no-show by Canadian PM

Canada disputes Tokyo's positive statement that a 'broad agreement' had been reached

Leaders attending the Apec-Asean dialogue on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam, yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A planned meeting of leaders of the 11 countries that remain in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was unexpectedly scrapped yesterday after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to turn up.

They were to have met to discuss the fate of the trade pact, amid differences over how to proceed with the deal after the withdrawal of the United States in January.

The so-called TPP-11 is made up of Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, all members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum.

There were vastly contrasting comments from different countries in the messy build-up to the scheduled leaders' meeting yesterday.

Over the past few days, chief negotiators and trade ministers had numerous meetings to try and iron out an agreement, even an in-principle one, for leaders to discuss and endorse. It looked as if there was a breakthrough after the marathon talks ended late on Thursday night.

Yesterday morning, the Japanese government issued a positive statement saying Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed a "broad agreement" reached by the TPP-11.

That, however, was quickly disputed by Canada, which insisted that there was no such agreement.

Sources close to the discussions, however, said that while the ministers did come to an agreement on a package deal and the legal instrument for the TPP on Thursday night, Canada was still not able to proceed with the leaders' meeting yesterday.

The ministers met again last night to reaffirm the package deal that had been struck, and they plan to issue a joint statement today, the sources said.

There were some earlier tell-tale signs that not every country was on the same page in terms of wanting to reach an agreement.

On Thursday, Mr Trudeau told a forum in Ho Chi Minh City that Canada would not be arm-twisted to agree to anything until it felt the terms were right for its people.

"We are not going to sign a deal just because we feel pressured into signing a deal. We are going to make sure that it is right for Canada, and it is right for the world," he said. "We are in no rush to do that, so we are going to take our time and look carefully at the negotiations."

The fate of the TPP has been in limbo ever since US President Donald Trump yanked the world's largest economy out of the deal.

The original TPP would have been the world's largest free trade agreement, covering 40 per cent of the global economy. Now that the US is out of the picture, the 11 nations represent about a third of that, or about 13.5 per cent.

The TPP aims to eliminate tariffs on industrial and farm products, with provisions for protection in areas ranging from labour rights to the environment to intellectual property. Japan, the world's third largest economy, has been spearheading the effort to revive the deal.

Speaking to reporters in Danang, Vietnam, Singapore Business Federation (SBF) chief executive officer Ho Meng Kit expressed disappointment that the TPP talks collapsed at the eleventh hour.

"Up until lunch time (yesterday), I was very hopeful. SBF even had a statement that was ready to be issued (to welcome the news of an agreement). Unfortunately, things didn't happen and I am not sure why," he said. "What is needed now is for the countries to go back, look at their sums again, and re-engage."

Mr Ho added that this latest setback was not as damaging as when the US withdrew completely from the pact, and he expressed hope that the sticking points could be overcome eventually.

"My overall sense is that the 11 countries are like-minded and they believe in openness, and they all believe in having a comprehensive and high-quality agreement," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2017, with the headline 'TPP leaders' meeting called off after no-show by Canadian PM'. Subscribe