Asian leaders see fitful progress on trade pact

 12 nations hope to reach agreement before U.S. midterm elections

By Elaine Kurtenbach
AP Business Writer

TOKYO (AP) — Talks on a Pacific Rim trade pact are making progress, Asian leaders say, though the outlook for a deal this year remains uncertain.

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, told a conference in Tokyo on Thursday that the 12 nations involved in the negotiations need to reach an agreement on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership before U.S. congressional elections in November.

“After the midterm elections, we do not know what Congress will look like. And then they’re into the presidential elections so they will have other preoccupations,” Lee said.

“There’s always a risk, but I think all the countries are working hard and trying hard to get it settled this year,” Lee said.

The pact is seen as a potential precursor to a future free-trade arrangement for the entire Pacific region. Nations participating in the talks range from the U.S. and Japan to New Zealand and Chile. Overall they account for 40 percent of global gross domestic product.

A joint statement issued after ministerial meetings in Singapore earlier this week said the group agreed to step up efforts to bridge gaps over trade and other policies hindering progress toward a final agreement.

The U.S. had been pushing for an agreement by the end of last year but faced resistance over contentious requirements that critics of the pact say only advance the interests of U.S. companies.

Japanese officials say they hope to hold further ministerial talks in July, though no timetable was set.

The initiative is a crucial part of President Barack Obama’s effort to boost American exports to fast growing economies in Asia and to assert U.S. influence in the region.

Not all leaders favor pushing for an early conclusion to the talks, however.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he believed there had been some movement during the Singapore talks, “but not that substantial.”

“These are complex issues. Let’s be pragmatic about it,” Najib said. “The solutions will come, but let’s not be too obsessed about a certain dateline.”

Progress on market access in Japan for U.S.-made cars and agricultural products is crucial to moving forward on the Pacific Rim trade pact. The agreement also calls for less government support for industry which would be challenging for countries such as Vietnam where state-owned companies dominate the economy.

Najib said the liberalization of investment restrictions might run counter to Malaysia’s affirmative action policies for its Malay population.

“These are elements that strike at the core of our domestic concerns,” Najib said.