TPP countries still divided over tariffs, key issues as Japan joins

After welcoming Japan as a new member, the 18th round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations ended Thursday in Malaysia, leaving many of the key issues like tariffs open to further negotiation.

Japan made its belated debut in the negotiations for creating one of the world's largest free trade areas near the end of the round held in the resort town of Kota Kinabalu since July 15, upon the completion of the U.S. domestic procedures to allow Japan in the talks.

While Japan could only take part in the last three days of the 11-day round, the sessions on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday were devoted to briefing Japanese negotiators on the current status of the negotiations that are already over three years old.

Japan learned much remains undecided in many of the over-20 fields covered by the talks, leaving room for Japan to negotiate its interests despite joining the negotiations just months before the goal of concluding a deal by year-end.

"Over key issues, there are still gaps between the countries and we need to discuss them further," said Japanese chief negotiator Koji Tsuruoka, adding Japan can still take part in the talks in a meaningful way.

"I don't think there is a disadvantage in Japan joining the talks late," said Japan's TPP minister Akira Amari in Tokyo.

The next round, the first round Japan can fully participate in, will be held Aug. 22-30 in Brunei.

Under the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tokyo has been seeking to expand exports of Japanese manufactured goods, while protecting the nation's key farm products -- rice, wheat, beef, pork, dairy products and sugar -- by retaining tariffs on imports.

The working group on market access, which deals with tariffs, was among the fields in which "negotiators agreed on a work program to accelerate negotiations," Malaysian chief negotiator J. Jayasiri said, reading out a statement of the TPP countries, indicating the talks have been difficult.

The statement said the countries made good progress in resolving more technical issues in most of the working groups. But it noted negotiators were looking for ways to advance talks in the "more challenging subjects" of intellectual property, environment and state-owned enterprises.

Still, Jayasiri said at a closing joint press conference "negotiators are working very hard to meet the deadline" agreed by their leaders to conclude negotiations this year, while other negotiators also reiterated their commitment.

While welcoming Japan to the negotiating table, Jayasiri said "Japan has integrated very well and smoothly into negotiations," and had agreed to work closely with other members and stick to the deadline.

Japan did not join the TPP talks until Tuesday afternoon, after the United States completed the process of notifying the Congress of its intent to start trade talks with Japan.

In a separate move, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Malaysian Premier Najib Razak in Malaysia's administrative capital of Putrajaya on Thursday, and conveyed Japan's intent to protect its key farm products by exempting them from the TPP rule of tariff elimination.

To bring Japan up to speed on the current status of the talks, chief negotiators on Wednesday briefed Japan on seven working groups in which it has not been able to take part, including market access covering tariff elimination, an area Tokyo is keen to discuss.

Thursday's session dealt with other working groups that had not been covered on the first day, with Japan given a chance to ask questions during the session.

"We have learned lots more...moved miles from where we were," said Japan's Tsuruoka at the joint press conference.

Japan gained access to hundreds of pages of negotiation documents upon its formal admission to the talks, and made further efforts to obtain information during the last days of the 18th round.

It held a dinner session Wednesday, inviting negotiators of other countries to continue negotiations and gather information outside of the official round. Some 120 negotiators are believed to have attended the session.

On the sidelines of the session, Japan also held briefing sessions on both Wednesday and Thursday for some 40 officials of Japanese "stakeholder" organizations with a strong interest in the TPP negotiations, to update them on what Japan had learned and been able to achieve so far.

The addition of Japan, the world's third-largest economy, significantly raises the economic weight of the envisioned pact, aimed at creating one of the world's largest free trade zones.

With Japan, the TPP countries account for nearly 40 percent of global gross domestic product and about a third of total world trade, at a time when China, which is not a TPP member, is increasing its global presence.

Aside from Japan, the TPP members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.