LEESBURG, Virginia (Reuters) - Free trade talks between the United States and soon-to-be 10 other Asia-Pacific nations have entered their most delicate phase, requiring tough decisions on issues ranging from sugar to patents, a senior U.S. negotiator said on Wednesday.
“There’s a certain rhythm to negotiations and we have moved through the 29 chapters (of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement) in a very aggressive way,” the official said, looking back on the first 30 months of talks.
“As we move through the process, you naturally start moving to the more sensitive issues and that’s the part of the process we’re at now,” the official said on condition she not be identified because the talks are continuing.
The United States is hosting the 14th round of negotiations on the proposed TPP pact at a suburban countryside resort outside Washington. The talks also include Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.
Canada and Mexico will join the negotiations when countries meet for their 15th round in December.
The 11 countries are aiming for a “21st Century” agreement that tears down traditional trade barriers and addresses new concerns, like establishing rules of the road for “state-owned enterprises” that increasingly compete with private companies.
But critics fear patent and copyright provisions of the agreement could boost the cost of medicines and restrict Internet freedom, while anti-smoking advocates worry it will create a new forum for tobacco companies to aggressively challenge government efforts to curb smoking.
U.S. textile, dairy and sugar group also are closely following the talks, worried the United States will negotiate away protections they currently enjoy against imports.
Protected industries in other countries have similar concerns, requiring governments all around the region to make politically difficult decisions to reach a deal.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has said he expects 2013 to be a pivotal year for the negotiations, which in one form date back to the administration of former President George W. Bush but were formally relaunched in March 2010.
The senior U.S. official declined to estimate how much longer it would take to get a deal, but rejected the suggestion the talks were adrift because they had already taken so long.
“We are making good progress each round ... We have made good progress here, and as we now eliminate all of the issues except the ones that need to have higher level discussions, that’s exactly where we’re supposed to be,” she said.
In the area of drug patents, the United States wants to strike a “balance” between encouraging the development of new drugs, promoting the use of generics and ensuring needy populations have access to medicines, she said.
The Obama administration also is listening to a broad array of voices regarding copyright protections on the Web, a second U.S. official said, adding U.S. negotiators are working within the bounds of existing U.S. law when crafting proposals.
Washington is still formulating a final position on tobacco-related issues, but “nothing we are negotiating in the TPP would inhibit the ability of any member to regulate in the public interest on matters of health,” the second U.S. official said.
Meanwhile, access to the U.S. clothing market is an important goal for Vietnam, a major clothing exporter, in the talks and politically sensitive for the United States.
But despite concerns the gap may be unbridgeable, the two sides appear to have found a framework that will satisfy both, the senior U.S. official said.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham