TPP negotiators thrash out thorny issues ahead of higher-level talks

Chief negotiators for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact began Wednesday to thrash out thorny issues in a bid to streamline the talks for a deal by the end of the year.

The negotiators from Japan, the United States and 10 other Pacific Rim countries gathered for a four-day meeting in Washington to prepare for a special leaders' summit on the U.S.-led pact next month in Bali, Indonesia.

The chief negotiators discussed five topics on the first day of the session and ordered subcommittees to sort out issues that need to be settled before next month's TPP summit, a Japanese delegate said, without elaborating on the topics.

The 12 countries 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 at the summit and a ministerial meeting in Indonesia.

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 opportunities for it to negotiate retaining tariffs on sensitive farm products, Japanese officials said.

The Japanese government faces strong domestic pressure to protect key agricultural products -- rice, wheat, beef and 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.

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.

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.

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