The 12 countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations reaffirmed Friday their commitment to concluding a regional free trade agreement within this year as they wrapped up the ministerial meeting of their 19th round of talks in Brunei.
But the ministers also indicated in a joint statement adopted at the end of their two-day meeting that difficult issues remain in numerous fields.
"The TPP countries have explored how to develop a mutually-acceptable package, including possible landing zones on remaining sensitive and challenging issues and sequencing of issues in the final talks," the statement said, adding particular areas of focus have included market access, financial services, government procurement and intellectual property.
The ministers agreed to maintain "active engagement" in the run-up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in October and said the leaders of the TPP countries are expected to meet on the margins of the meeting as they have in previous years.
"This meeting will be an important milestone as the 12 countries work intensively to conclude this landmark agreement," the joint statement said.
The successful conclusion of the pact will create one of the world's largest free trade areas as the members include Japan, which only joined from the July round of talks, and the United States.
Actively engaging in the talks, Japan's TPP minister Akira Amari met with his counterparts from Canada, Vietnam, Singapore and New Zealand earlier in the day. He also met with ministers of Brunei, Malaysia and Mexico the day before.
Issues that Tokyo has been particularly interested in negotiating on include market access, as it is seeking to protect its rice and other sensitive farm products by retaining high tariffs, while eliminating those imposed by other countries on its manufactured goods.
During the Brunei round through Aug. 30, Japan expects to present requests and offers to the other TPP members, although the United States is unlikely to be among them as Washington has not finished assessing the impact of eliminating tariffs on Japanese products.
"Given Japan's entry into TPP last month, we expect that our offer for Japan will be available in mid-September," U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said at a joint news conference after the meeting.
Amari said at a separate news conference, "We are ready to table our offer to the United States any time."
Japan sent a delegation of around 120 members to Brunei for full-fledged negotiations on 10 fields being dealt with in this round. The envisioned TPP pact covers a total of 21 fields.
Among the more difficult topics, Malaysian trade minister Mustapa Mohamed referred to negotiations on state-owned enterprises, saying in a statement, "I underscored that Malaysia had serious difficulties with the current SOE proposal, which is seen to go beyond the stated objective of creating a level playing field" with private companies.
The 12 TPP countries are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
The countries together account for nearly 40 percent of global economic output and about a third of world trade.