US trade representative Michael Froman (R) and Japan's Minister Akira Amari
Asia-Pacific trade ministers negotiating a huge US-led free trade area said Tuesday they were making headway but differences remain over market access. In a joint statement at the end of a four-day meeting in Singapore, the 12 prospective
members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) said they had made "further strides towards a final agreement".
"While some issues remain, we have charted a path forward to resolve them in the context of a comprehensive and balanced outcome," they said.
Talks in December, also in Singapore, ended with negotiators failing to meet a self-imposed deadline to reach a deal by the end of 2013.
The 12 countries -- Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam -- are divided on a number of issues, including the opening up of protected domestic markets such as agriculture and automobiles.
Other sticking points include limiting the role of state-owned enterprises in the economy, which countries such as Malaysia are opposing, and copyright provisions that critics say would limit the poor's access to cheaper generic drugs.
"Through extensive bilateral meetings, we have also made progress on market access, which is an important part of our remaining work," the ministers said in the statement.
"We will continue working toward completion of an ambitious package across all market access areas."
Australian Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb said in a news conference negotiators had "overwhelmingly broken the back of market access issues" in the Singapore talks, but a deal was not yet complete.
"My sense is that we are 80 percent plus there, but the market access is very important," he said.
An agreement on market access between the US and Japan -- who together make up 70 percent of the total gross domestic product of the 12 countries -- is vital to a final agreement, he said.
The 12 countries make up 40 percent of the global economy.
-'Sensitive political decisions'-
Deborah K. Elms, a specialist on the TPP at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said prolonged talks could make the agreement obsolete.
"The rules that are being negotiated, depending on the industry, may turn out to be out of date by the time the rules come into effect, especially for fast moving industries like e-commerce," she told AFP.
"Most of what is left are sensitive political decisions and the only people who can make those kinds of decisions are ministers," she said.
"If the ministers cannot see their way clear to reach a decision after four days of engagement, that is disappointing."
The ministers did not comment on when and where they would meet again.
US Trade Representative Michael Froman told reporters "there is no set deadline" for completing the negotiations.
"Our focus is on achieving an agreement among all 12 of us and that agreement needs to be that ambitious, comprehensive, high-standard agreement," he said.
Froman said he was "working very closely" with US lawmakers to lay the foundations for the granting of "fast track" powers to President Barack Obama's administration.
These would allow it to negotiate major trade deals which Congress could approve or reject but not amend.
The move faces tough opposition from House Democrats who feel it is too far-reaching.
A statement released Tuesday by three House Democrats said "there is a considerable gap between what is being proposed in the TPP and what the American people and their elected representatives in Congress will allow".
House representatives Louise Slaughter, Rosa DeLauro and George Miller in the statement called the TPP a "flawed trade agreement".
Obama has put a high priority on the TPP, seeing it as tying the US more firmly to the dynamic Asia-Pacific region at a time when China's clout is rising.