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TPP talks without US make progress in Japan but unresolved issues remain

URAYASU, Chiba -- The 11 remaining member states of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement concluded a three-day session of working-level talks here on Nov. 1, without the presence of former TPP member, the United States.

    As the next step, the 11 countries are now aiming to reach agreement on most issues at a ministerial conference in Danang, Vietnam, between Nov. 8 and 9, leaving items left over from the current talks to be determined at the ministerial level.

    With the U.S. withdrawing from the agreement roughly nine months ago, the remaining "TPP11" countries -- which are being steered by Japan for the first time -- are now entering the final straight in terms of negotiations, following a number of twists and turns.

    "As the chair of this meeting, I suppose it's acceptable to show you all the arbitration proposal," said Japan's chief trade negotiator Kazuyoshi Umemoto on Oct. 31, the second day of recent talks, to other negotiators from TPP member states.

    Among the items agreed on by the original 12 TPP countries, approximately 60 have been requested to be frozen by signatory states until the U.S. returns to the agreement. Japan had hoped to narrow down the number of items that countries want to freeze to about 20 to 30 at the latest session of talks in Chiba Prefecture to pave a smoother path for a settlement at the ministerial conference in Vietnam later this month.

    On the first day of the latest round of talks, however, the majority of member states stood firm in terms of their requests, and discussions were locked in a stalemate. Consequently, Umemoto stepped in, making use of his authority, and suggested that he present a list of frozen items as well as a list of issues that can be passed on and settled at a higher, political level.

    Yet this approach led to a backlash from the other nations, and a heated discussion ensued with some calling his approach high-handed. A number of member nations also demanded further dialog. A source close to the negotiations said the discussion helped advance different opinions to reach a consensus.

    As a result, the specification of frozen items went ahead. For example, the member states agreed on freezing the period of copyright protection to 70 years, which is the same length as in the U.S., in addition to the rules for settling disputes within the telecommunications sector, which were originally put forward by Washington. At the same time, it was decided to continue and not freeze certain items such as workers' rights protection procedures, despite requests from some member states to freeze them.

    No conclusion was reached on the handling of "rules of origin," which limit the abolition and reduction of tariffs on textile goods. Vietnam has strongly requested that the rules be revised. Judgment on this issue will be handed over to the ministerial level.

    There are still a number of issues that need to be dealt with at the ministerial conference in Vietnam on Nov. 8 and 9. However, with each signatory state having domestic affairs to worry about as well as conflicting interests with their trade partners -- such as Canada's and Mexico's caution about the U.S. potentially changing the TPP11 rules to their benefit in the ongoing renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- a source close to the talks revealed that the situation "does not allow optimism."

    Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan's minister in charge of the TPP, is likely to face the tough job of taking into account the situations in each member state, and conflicting interests.

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