by Chen Jipeng
SINGAPORE, May 20 (Xinhua) -- Uncertainties remain for the outlook for the demanding Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, even as ministers of the participating countries said here on Tuesday that the fog is clearing up.
As a key part of the ongoing negotiations, the United States and Japan "have been able to identify the pathway forward," Japanese minister Akira Amari and the United States' Michael Froman both said at the conclusion of a TPP ministerial meeting.
It is obviously not easy for Japan to back up any more on access to its agricultural market. Amari said he told other ministers at the meeting on Monday that Japan will try its best to open the market, even though it "cannot open its agricultural market fully."
On Tuesday, he stressed the need for tolerance in light of the various circumstances of the TPP countries, while the sensitivity held by various parties needs to be minimized.
Froman described the momentum at the meeting as "overwhelmingly positive," but nevertheless declined to specify any timeline.
The TPP negotiators will only conclude the talks "as soon as we have an ambitious, comprehensive and high-standard agreement," he said jokingly.
"We have set a pathway forward and a work program to make progress on the outstanding issues and rules. Obviously the substance of the negotiations will determine the timetable. So there is no particular deadline or timetable for reaching a final agreement," Froman said.
The United States had hoped for the conclusion of the TPP talks by the end of last year, but the deadline obviously had to be dropped after ministerial meetings in Singapore this year.
The TPP talks led by the United States gathered the representatives of 12 countries that also include Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Vietnam and Singapore.
Prior to the latest "check-in meeting" to review progress in Singapore, chief negotiators have met in Vietnam from May 11 to May 17. The last ministerial meeting took place in Feburary, where the ministers "agreed on the majority of the landing zones identified at the meeting in December."
Sources close to the negotiations said that some of the countries including New Zealand had indicated that they would not move unless there is substantial progress in the market access talks between the United States and Japan.
Japan also held talks with other participating countries, as the hardest part of the TPP negotiation is by and large between the United States and Japan but is multilateral, too.
"We are dealing with things that have left aside after some 60 or 70 years of multilateral negotiations, and there are enormous tariff and other barriers left in some of these areas," said New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser.
The ministers said that they have instructed the chief negotiators to meet again in July, while bilteral and other forms of engagement are expected to carry on over the coming weeks.
Experts have said that the next likely date would be in November, when the United States mid-term elections are scheduled.
Failure to conclude the negotiations by then could further complicate the free trade talks, said Deborah Elms, head of Temasek Foundation Center for Trade and Negotiations, Nanyang Technological University.
"Nobody would want to vote on it (after that)," she said.
Judging from clues available at the moment, it is not going to be easy as there are still hurdles to clear.
The participants would still have to work on market access and trade rules. The U.S. negotiators will also have to get the "fast track" from their congress so as to have the authorization to negotiate the terms and bring them back to congress for approval or rejection -- without the need for amendments.
Experts also said that the United States needs to have an agreement, and some of the ministers said that they sensed "a sense of urgency" at the negotiations.
It is still "very good" even if the negotiators eventually bring home an agreement with little bits chipped off the original targets.
"I suspect that at the end of the day, even if you get some shaving of quality at the end ... you go from 100 percent perfection to 99 percent perfection, that's (still) really good," Elms said.
The TPP has been controversial, too, as leaked texts show that it covers much more than just free trade and that the rules are demanding. Critics have said that is too much of a corporate-led globalization, and rights groups have said it could even jeopardize access to life-saving drugs for the poor.
Nevertheless, it also represents a comprehensive free trade bloc with huge influence in the Asia Pacific. In fact, it is already showing influences as the economies in and outside the bloc moves closer to get ready for the challenge.
Jane Kelsey, a professor of law at the University of Auckland and a critic of corporate-led globalization, said that the TPP would represent a huge challenge for China, especially in terms of the state-owned enterprises.
Elms, however, believes that China could use the TPP to drive its reforms when it is the right time. The TPP would be implemented only after several years, and it would be, at the earliest, 2020, she said.