May 19, 2014 10:38 am JST

Japan, US resume TPP talks as ministers gather in Singapore

SINGAPORE (Kyodo) -- Japan and the United States resumed their discussions over outstanding bilateral issues related to a Pacific free trade agreement Monday in Singapore, where ministers from the 12 negotiating members are gathering to seek further progress.

     The ministers, however, are not expected to announce a broad agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the two-day meeting through Tuesday. It is seen as an opportunity for the countries to assess how much progress has been made and to scrutinize the current situation, negotiation sources said.

     The meeting is aimed at "accelerating bilateral talks with each country and evaluating progress made so far," Akira Amari, Japan's minister in charge of TPP negotiations, told reporters before holding talks with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on the sidelines of a TPP plenary meeting.

     "It's important to have a sense of urgency" to strike a broad agreement "so (the TPP) won't be left with nowhere to go," Amari said.

     Amari and Froman met for the first time since they held marathon talks in April, when the two sides moved closer over how to deal with Japanese tariffs on key farm products and U.S. auto tariffs, the biggest sticking points.

     Japan will also hold bilateral meetings with six other countries including Singapore, according to government officials.

     Amid the deadlock between the United States and Japan, the biggest economies in the TPP, the 10 other countries including Australia, Chile, Malaysia and New Zealand have taken a wait-and-see stance, keen to evaluate the extent of progress Tokyo and Washington made in April.

     The sources said the other TPP members could move forward on sensitive issues of their own, after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama said in a joint statement following their April 24 summit that the two-way talks marked a "key milestone."

     But Japanese tariffs on beef and pork, one of the five agricultural product categories designated by Tokyo as sensitive, remain a hurdle for Tokyo and Washington. Amari said earlier the two have agreed on a "formula" with which they can seal a bilateral deal on the remaining issues, but details have yet to be decided.

     As Washington has called for a drastic cut of tariffs on beef and pork, Tokyo wants to introduce safeguard measures on imports of the products should they surge under the TPP. However, they are struggling to find common ground on how those tariff-cutting and safeguard measures should be combined, the sources added.

     The trade representatives from the 12 countries will also try to narrow their differences on other thorny issues including intellectual property rights and reform of state-owned firms, areas in which emerging Asian economies such as Malaysia and Vietnam are in confrontation with developed countries.

     The latest session of negotiations comes after the TPP countries failed to reach a broad agreement at a ministerial meeting held in February in Singapore, due mainly to Japan-U.S. bickering.