WASHINGTON • Delegates negotiating a vast Pacific free-trade agreement failed to reach a final deal last Friday after several days of intense talks in Hawaii, in a setback for US President Barack Obama.
But US Trade Representative Michael Froman, in a statement on behalf of the 12 countries involved, insisted that "significant progress" had been made on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact, the most ambitious trade deal in decades.
"After more than a week of productive meetings, we've made significant progress and will continue on resolving a limited number of remaining issues, paving the way for the conclusion of the TPP negotiations," Mr Froman told a press conference. The negotiators were "more confident than ever that the TPP is within reach", he said, and the Pacific Rim countries would continue to have bilateral discussions to iron out their differences.
The TPP - already eight years in the making - would be a huge free trade bloc encompassing 40 per cent of the world's economy and part of Mr Obama's much-vaunted "pivot" towards Asia in the face of an increasingly assertive China which, notably, is not included.
The press conference was delayed by several hours as the countries - including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada - attempted to thrash out a deal in what had been billed as the home straight, in talks that reportedly went deep into the night.
The progress made this week reflects our long-standing commitment to deliver an ambitious, comprehensive and high-standard TPP agreement that will support jobs and economic growth.
MR MICHAEL FROMAN, US Trade Representative
The failure by trade ministers to get the accord over the line on Friday is a blow to Mr Obama - who has faced opposition to the deal from fellow Democrats - as it could see the TPP become campaign fodder with the United States facing elections in November next year.
"The progress made this week reflects our long-standing commitment to deliver an ambitious, comprehensive and high-standard TPP agreement that will support jobs and economic growth across the Asia-Pacific," Mr Froman said.
The 12 countries involved have faced criticism for carrying out their negotiations in what opponents say is a high level of secrecy. The TPP's many critics say the proposals indicate a deal moving more towards protection than free trade; one more about corporate benefits than boosting economies.
But backers say the modern global economy needs a new framework of rules to protect intellectual property-dependent 21st-century industries that are not covered in traditional free trade pacts like the World Trade Organisation.
Trade ministers were keen to talk up the positives. "Good progress was made... but a number of challenging issues remain, including intellectual property and market access for dairy products," New Zealand's Tim Groser said in a statement, touching on two of the outstanding sensitive issues.
Japan's minister in charge of TPP negotiations Akira Amari said it would take another ministerial-level meeting to get the deal done.
"It is our common view that we will hold a meeting by the end of August," Mr Amari said, according to public broadcaster NHK. "If we can't conclude it next time, it's going to be very hard."
Australia's trade and investment minister Andrew Robb said they were "on the cusp", with "provisional decisions on more than 90 percent of issues".
The other countries involved are Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Several prickly issues were believed to have held up the latest talks on the island of Maui, prime among them differences over agricultural markets, auto trade and protection for drug makers. Also covered in the vast proposed pact are better copyright protection, workers' rights and environmental protection.