SYDNEY -- A ministerial meeting over a Pacific free trade initiative concluded here Monday without yielding significant results, making it highly unlikely that a basic agreement will be reached by the year-end.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Japanese Minister Akira Amari met for about 50 minutes on just the last day of the three-day Trans-Pacific Partnership meeting. They made no significant headway on key bones of contention, such as tariffs on beef and pork.
With the U.S. midterm elections looming on Nov. 4, many automaker unions and agricultural lobbies have been calling for a tough stance against Japan. Froman likely hopes to postpone hammering out specific points until the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing, scheduled for after the elections.
The tension between Japan and the U.S. is rippling to other negotiating countries as well. Malaysian Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed apparently demanded that Japan ease restrictions on more agricultural products at a Saturday meeting with Amari.
Japan had agreed to withdraw some controls on plywood and lumber, and had expected to soon wrap up talks with the Southeast Asian country. Those involved in the negotiations speculate that a third party steered Malaysia away from making a final decision, since the TPP talks will likely continue for some time.
Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb called on participants to work toward concluding the basic tenets of the agreement. But there has yet to be a resolution on even these "basic elements" due to disagreements over six fields, including intellectual property laws, the environment and state-owned enterprises.
"There's a real sense we're within reach of the finish line," Robb said at a joint news conference on Monday. But no date has been set for the TPP summit planned for November, and Japan and the U.S. continue to tread a fine line between compromise and a complete breakdown in negotiations.
All eyes are intently watching how the U.S. elections play out. Some say the Republican Party will gain a majority in both houses, putting an end to the political gridlock in Washington.
But while Republicans are said to be bigger free trade supporters than the Democrats, many doubt that the opposition party will support an agreement that would reflect positively on the Obama administration.