The chief negotiators representing the 12 countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership ( TPP) talks will meet again in July, their ministers said Tuesday at the conclusion of a two-day meeting in Singapore.
The ministers said that they reviewed the progress, including the results of the chief negotiators meeting last week in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The latest meeting in Singapore was said to be a "check-in meeting" to review the progress and see what needs to be tackled.
"In order to further build on the momentum of negotiations, we have decided on a pathway of intensified engagement over the coming weeks on market access and rules," the ministrs said in a joint statement.
The TPP countries said they would continue to engage " bilaterally and in other configurations," while pushing forward the necessary domestic processes, including the "fast track," which the U.S. negotiators need to get from their congress so that they can negotiate the terms and put them to the congress for vote without the need for amendments.
Michael Froman of the United States described the momentum at the meeting as "overwhelmingly positive". However, he also said that there will be no deadline or timetable for a final agreement.
Observers have said that uncertainty remains over the outlook of the TPP negotiations. A failure to conclude a final agreement by the time of the mid-term elections in the United States may further complicate the situation and make it much more difficult.
"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 when asked to measure the progress.
It is believed that the other participating countries in the TPP talks are now largely looking at the progress of market access talks between the United States and Japan over agricultural products and automobiles.
Akira Amari, the Japanese minister in charge of the negotiations, said that the fog is clearing up as the United States and Japan "have been able to identify the pathway forward."
However, he also stressed the need for tolerance in light of the various circumstances of the TPP countries, while the sensitivity held by various parties need to minimized.
Amari said last week that it was unclear to what extent Tokyo and Washington can narrow differences over thorny issues such as Japanese tariffs on key agricultural products.
Amari said Monday that he told other ministers at the meeting that Japan would try its best to open the market even though it cannot open its agricultural product fully.
The two-day meeting behind closed doors was led by the United States and gathered the representatives of 12 countries that also include Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Vietnam and Singapore.
The United States had hoped for the conclusion of the talks by the end of last year on the TPP, a comprehensive and demanding but controversial trading pact that covers not only free trade but also aspects such as stringent intellectual property rights, the rights of multinationals to sue national governments and what the United States view as unfair competitive advantage of state-owned enterprises.
Some of the observers have said that the TPP talks are more on fair trade than on free trade. Differences obviously remain between the participating countries on some of the issues.