Sugar key to TPP deal, says Singapore-based expert

The United States liberalization of its sugar market holds the key to a conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks, according to an expert on the TPP at a Singapore think tank.

Sugar "is the key, it needs to be on the table," Deborah Elms, head of the Temasek Foundation Center for Trade and Negotiations, said in a recent interview with Kyodo News.

"The problem is that it's not the trade negotiators who can make that call. That requires political leadership," she said.

Even though it would be politically difficult, she said, the United States "has to give on sugar" because this would send a signal to other countries involved in the TPP negotiations to open markets for their own sensitive goods.

"It would be a very visible symbol of what the U.S. is planning to do in the TPP that it doesn't do in other agreements," she said.

If the United States insists on defending sugar, she said, "then Japan is going to turn right around and defend rice, and beef and pork and wheat and all its other sacred items."

Elms said she doubts the TPP countries can conclude an agreement at a four-day TPP ministerial meeting that starts Saturday in Singapore, "given that the U.S. seems to be remarkably unwilling to budge on its own redline issues." She projected it is more likely to be concluded in March next year.

The meeting is expected to be the last opportunity for Japan, the United States and 10 other countries bordering the Pacific Ocean to try to realize the ambitious economic initiative -- encompassing roughly one-third of all world trade -- on schedule.

The meeting is expected to deal with politically sensitive issues that require trade ministers to weigh in on, such as dairy, sugar, rice, intellectual property, state-owned enterprises, government procurement and intellectual property rights.

"To me it's not a surprise that it's taking so long to get the agreement done, you are asking countries to deal with things that are highly sensitive, highly sensitive, deeply political intrusive, and it's hard."

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