TPP to stay largely as is minus US, members agree
Countries aim to tempt Washington back but could clash over revisions
TOKYO -- The Trans-Pacific Partnership will be salvaged without too many revisions despite the American withdrawal, the 11 remaining signatories agreed Thursday, but forging a new pact will still likely prove a contentious process.
Negotiators met for two days in the Japanese hot-springs resort town of Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture. Agreeing to press on toward a new treaty with only minimal modifications was the most significant result. The countries aim to lay out a shape for the so-called TPP 11 ahead of cabinet-level and leadership meetings in Vietnam this November.
Attendees "achieved mutual understanding on a path forward" toward implementing the treaty, Japanese chief negotiator Kazuyoshi Umemoto told reporters. The 11 countries "will carry on working without lowering the TPP's high standards," he said.
Keeping Washington's seat warm
Discussions were led by countries including Japan, Australia and New Zealand, which hope to quickly put the pact into force as is. Mexico appeared more proactive than at previous talks in Vietnam, when its focus was mainly on an upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Drastic change to the TPP could not only bring clashing interests among signatories back to the fore, but also make it harder to lure the U.S. back into the fold. Thursday's agreement among chief negotiators and other representatives to preserve as much of the original terms as possible showed an intent to retain the TPP's core regardless of Washington's absence.
But discussions did not go deep enough to yield concrete revisions on such important issues as whether to alter terms on repealing tariffs. Nor did members set terms for implementing the revised treaty. The TPP as currently written goes into force when ratified by at least six members accounting for at least 85% of the bloc's gross domestic product.
The same, but different
Areas where Washington's desires show through heavily would be focal points in revising the treaty.
The U.S. fought hard to extend protection periods for data on biotechnology-based pharmaceuticals under the pact, for example. A number of members at this week's meetings, including Japan, expressed a preference for shorter periods.
But signatories absolutely intend to retain the bones of the TPP. Many close to the matter believe that should the U.S. return, the pact would be implemented as originally agreed with American requests incorporated. Overhauling it too radically in Washington's absence could affect the framework down the line.
A rocky road
Some countries, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, originally conceded to softer domestic protections in return for an open U.S. market. How they will approach revisions is unclear. Countries with weak domestic industry may even seek to revise tariff agreements, but New Zealand and Australia are standing firm.
Domestic conditions of remaining signatories will also factor into whether they maintain their enthusiasm. Malaysia did not send its chief negotiator to the meetings. Nor did Canada, which has seen a change of government since agreeing to the TPP.
The next meetings will begin in late August or early September in Australia. The biggest question will likely be whether members can sustain momentum while clearing away barriers to forging a new pact.