Chief negotiators from 12 countries of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) wrapped up eight days of talks last Saturday in Ottawa with apparently little progress having been made.
Some nominal agreement was struck in two areas: banning trade in goods produced by forced labour and measures regarding the quarantine of imports deemed to pose a food safety risk. But in three highly contentious fields — reforms of state-run companies, intellectual property and environmental affairs — recognizing there would be little chance of making any progress, the chief negotiators instead simply shelved debate.
“There remain a sizable number of tasks for the chief negotiators to tackle,” Koji Tsuruoka, Japan’s chief negotiator in the TPP talks said with considerable understatement at a press conference.
Negotiators were unable to even reach agreement on when to set a date for the next meeting. Last month, President Barack Obama suggested that a TPP document be hammered out to coincide with a summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum taking place November 10-11. However, negotiators evidently did not even discuss Obama’s proposal in the latest round of discussions.
The most significant factor complicating the timing of further talks is the U.S. political calendar. Reaching a basic agreement prior to the midterm elections taking place on November 4 — if that were even possible — could worsen chances for the ruling Democrats whose support base is strongly opposed to expanding free trade in general and the TPP in particular. Participating countries are therefore said to be leaning toward the option of holding a ministerial meeting sometime between the U.S. midterm elections and the APEC summit meeting.
In the meantime, the U.S. and Japan will resume their working-level negotiations in Washington to resolve outstanding tariff reduction issues, primarily concerning trade in agricultural goods. Both sides have come under increasingly strong pressure from the farming sector in their respective countries, each working entirely at cross-purposes in terms of market access. Some other countries involved in the TPP, including Canada, are looking to the outcome of these bilateral talks to shape their own stance on problematic issues such as the supply management of dairy products.