Crucial TPP ministerial meeting to begin in Singapore

Ministers from the 12 countries involved in the envisioned Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade accord will begin talks in Singapore on Saturday seeking to achieve the challenging goal of reaching a broad agreement after missing an end-of-2013 deadline.

But the momentum for an early conclusion of the ambitious U.S.-led trade initiative has been overshadowed by U.S. frustration over Japan's reluctance to open up its agricultural market, as well as Malaysian and Vietnamese opposition to reforming state-owned firms.

During a five-day working-level meeting through Friday, each country held bilateral meetings on the sidelines of plenary sessions to bridge gaps over outstanding issues, but officials made little progress on thorny issues.

On Friday, Akira Amari, Japan's minister in charge of the TPP, told the press after arriving in Singapore that the ministerial meeting would not be the last session of negotiations, adding that the hurdle for striking a deal is "fairly high."

He described the situation as like a "patchy pattern," explaining that some issues have made certain progress but other issues remain deadlocked.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said Thursday in Washington that tariffs on five Japanese farm product categories Tokyo seeks to retain -- rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar -- will be one of the focuses during the ministerial session, calling for "flexibility and creativity" from Tokyo.

Froman and Amari are expected to hold bilateral talks on the margin of the plenary meeting to break the impasse.

Prospects for successfully concluding the TPP, which would be one of the world's biggest regional trade accords, have also been called into question due to U.S. political uncertainty.

Concerns have been raised that negotiating partners may refrain from agreeing on any deals unless U.S. President Barack Obama is granted so-called fast-track authority, which critics say is crucial for swiftly concluding trade pacts.

Froman has signaled that Congress is only likely to grant such authority, which would allow Obama to ask for Congressional endorsement of an agreement without amendments, once TPP negotiations are completed.

The 12 countries, which also include Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are expected to hold a press conference on the last day of the talks, but details have yet to be announced.

==Kyodo