TPP countries consider amendments to stalled trade deal: Sources

Japan's chief trade negotiator Kazuyoshi Umemoto (left) speaks at the Trans Pacific Partnership seniors leaders meeting in Sydney, Australia Aug 28, 2017.
Japan's chief trade negotiator Kazuyoshi Umemoto (left) speaks at the Trans Pacific Partnership seniors leaders meeting in Sydney, Australia Aug 28, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The 11 countries committed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership are considering amendments to the trade deal, three sources said on Tuesday, as officials meet in Sydney for talks to re-energize the stalled agreement.

Among the areas being discussed, Vietnam has raised the prospect of changes to labour rights and intellectual property (IP) provisions in the original pact, one source familiar with the talks told Reuters.

Vietnam had been one of the countries expected to enjoy the biggest economic benefits from TPP through greater access to US markets.

However, the original 12-member TPP, which aims to cut trade barriers in some of Asia's fastest-growing economies, was thrown into limbo in January when US President Trump withdrew from the agreement.

Mr Trump's move fulfilled a campaign pledge to put "America first" - a policy that aimed to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

Although the remaining members have publicly said they remain committed to the deal, implementation of the agreement linking 11 countries with a combined GDP of US$12.4 trillion (S$16.7 trillion) has stalled - raising fears that other countries will follow the US lead and withdraw.

Eager to keep all members onboard, representatives from the remaining countries are considering changes to the original TPP deal, three sources familiar with the talks said.

"We're all open to evaluating what we can do and what viable alternatives there may be," Edgar Vasquez, Peru's deputy trade minister, told Reuters.

While no agreement is expected at the end of the three-day meeting, Vietnam's desire to shelve the IP provisions around pharmaceutical data is likely to win broad support, with Japanese and New Zealand officials also indicating their support for the change, two other sources said.

The original TPP agreement was seen as particularly onerous on Vietnam, which be forced to make significant reforms, analysts said. "There's not much sense to agree to provisions they don't really want such as stronger monopolies on medicines if they are not going to get access to the US market," said Patricia Ranald, research associate, University of Sydney.

The original TPP offered an eight-year window before competitors can have access to proprietary pharmaceutical data, which critics said would impede development of cheap generics. Potential amendments, however, require delicate positioning.

While Mr Trump has said he will not change his mind on TPP, the remaining members are hopeful a future US president will commit to the agreement, a cornerstone of former President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia.

But analysts said wholesale changes, while ensuring the support of smaller members, would repel the United States. "The more you change the agreement, it is going to be harder to get the US to sign on when it is ready to," said Shiro Armstrong, research fellow at the Crawford School of Economics in Canberra.