Ministers of the 12 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations agreed Sunday to uphold a basic rule of total tariff eliminations in wrapping up their three-day meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali toward the goal of reaching a deal by the year-end.
During their effort to compile work plans for advancing talks on contentious areas, the ministers discussed market access that covers tariff elimination rules and intellectual property rights among others, despite each country having its own sensitivities.
On Japan's sensitive items, a ruling party lawmaker in charge told reporters after the meeting that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party now plans to study the possibility of eliminating tariffs on the items that have been considered untouchable, including rice.
"We need to consider whether we can take them out or not" from the exceptional items in Japan's negotiation policy -- adopted in line with the party's proposal -- said Koya Nishikawa, head of the LDP's TPP committee, although adding it does not necessarily mean the party has removal in mind.
"If it doesn't hurt (Japan's agriculture), it would be up to the government to negotiate" and decide policies, Nishikawa said.
The Japanese government faces strong domestic pressure to retain tariffs on imports of rice, wheat, beef, pork, dairy products and sugar to protect domestic agriculture, but challenges are expected in its attempt to protect them from cheaper foreign products.
To speed up the talks that are already over three years old, the member countries are now planning to arrange a ministerial meeting in December.
"The ministerial meeting is expected to be held toward the end as we aim to conclude a deal within this year," said Japan's TPP minister Akira Amari after the meeting, adding Japan will work to facilitate talks to meet the year-end target.
The ministers will submit a report on the outcome of their latest meeting to the leaders arriving for a TPP summit to be held Tuesday as scheduled, despite U.S. President Barack Obama's cancellation of his trip to Bali due to the partial shutdown of the federal government over a budget impasse, officials said.
Before the day's meeting began in the morning, Amari told reporters TPP members are making progress in the talks and Obama's absence will not affect their aim of reaching a deal this year.
"We were shocked that President Obama couldn't make it, but we quickly decided that we'll maintain the momentum" of the negotiations, Amari said.
The ministerial meeting began Thursday and was also held Friday. The meeting, together with the preceding meeting of chief negotiators and the summit, is being held on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
After receiving the ministers' report, the leaders are expected to announce that the members' work on TPP is close to a finish, according to negotiation sources.
The report will be announced together with the leaders' statement at the end of the TPP summit.
The 12 TPP countries -- Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam -- have been aiming to reach a broad agreement in October.