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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Progress is being made in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks but hurdles remain and Japan is unlikely to be ready to join the next round in May, negotiators said on Wednesday, pointing to a tough road for the 11 countries hoping to sign an agreement this year.
If Japan expresses its desire to take part, it must first hold bilateral meetings with existing members and be supported by a consensus to "keep up the good momentum" going into the next talks in Peru, said Singapore's negotiator, Ng Bee Kim.
"I don't think we're looking at Japan specifically coming on board in Lima," Ng said at a press conference after the 16th round of the talks ended in Singapore.
The TPP, which has grown from seven countries, aims to eliminate barriers to goods and services and address issues including the movement of electronic data, market access for financial firms and copyright protection.
Japanese media say Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to announce on Friday that Japan would like to join the talks.
A statement said "solid progress" was made in the Singapore session to bridge gaps in a number of areas and that there were advances on regulatory issues, telecommunications, customs and development.
A range of "more challenging areas" remain, including intellectual property, the environment, competition and labour, said the statement by Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry.
The United States and others hope to wrap up negotiations by the end of this year or, in an even more ambitious scenario, by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on the Indonesian island of Bali in October.
Beyond the United States, the TPP countries are Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. The next round of talks in Lima is due to be held from May 15-24.
(Reporting by John O'Callaghan; Editing by Kim Coghill)