Top TPP negotiators gathering to speed work toward year-end deal

Chief negotiators of 12 countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations will meet in Washington from Wednesday and seek to streamline the talks to conclude a deal by year-end.

During meetings through Saturday, the negotiators of the United States, Japan and other Pacific Rim countries are expected to assess the progress of the talks stretching over 21 fields and sort what issues can be dealt with at a working level from those that need to be settled at a higher political level.

The member countries will hold a TPP summit and ministerial meetings next month in Bali, Indonesia, where they aim to reach a basic agreement for the creation of one of the world's largest free trade zones covering about a third of world trade.

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday in Tokyo, Japan's TPP minister Akira Amari said he will closely monitor developments this week as they could alter the outcome of the Bali meeting.

The Washington gathering, Amari said, "plays a major role in whether or not we can achieve the basic agreement itself."

The chief negotiator meeting will run in parallel with a working group session on tariff elimination scheduled for Friday to Monday in Washington.

For Japan, which joined the talks in late July and only took part in the tariff negotiations in the last round in Brunei in August, this week's sessions are expected to provide further chances for it to negotiate retaining tariffs on sensitive farm products.

The Japanese government faces strong domestic pressure to protect key agricultural products -- rice, wheat, beef, pork, dairy products and sugar -- amid concern that an influx of cheap imports could devastate Japan's agricultural sector.

Japan has so far exchanged lists of items on which it would eliminate tariffs with Brunei, New Zealand, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru and Singapore during the 19th round of talks in Brunei. The percentage of tariff-free items on Japan's list remained relatively low at around 80 percent.

If Japan agrees to abolish all tariffs other than those on its key farm product categories, the tariff-free percentage would rise to 93.5 percent. But The TPP countries agreed in July to table lists encompassing 95 percent of items by Sept. 20.

Aside from tariffs, other difficult issues on the negotiating table include intellectual property rights dealing with the length of copyright protection and patent terms, and rules pertaining to government procurement in connection with public works projects.

"The key is how to combine the parts in which Japan can assume the offensive and the parts that need to be protected," Amari said.

Favorable treatment of state-owned enterprises and greater access to textile markets have also been key sticking points between developed nations and emerging economies in the TPP talks.

However, a basic agreement between the United States and Vietnam on the issues of textile and state-run enterprises has raised hope for major progress in negotiations in those sensitive areas.

The 12 countries involved in the TPP negotiations are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, Peru, the United States and Vietnam.