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Japan and 10 other countries were moving closer to a deal on pushing ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact without the US, in a sign of how Pacific Rim economies are moving on with globalisation despite resistance from Donald Trump.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was expected to join leaders from other TPP countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam as soon as Friday in declaring their commitment to the pact on the sidelines of a regional summit that Mr Trump is attending.
But chief negotiators were continuing to hash out the details late into the night in the Vietnamese beach resort of Da Nang with ministers from leading countries offering conflicting assessments of their progress.
“The 11 nations were able to reach a ministerial agreement,” Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s economy minister, told reporters after talks with his fellow ministers ended in Da Nang late on Thursday. Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, Mexico’s economy minister, also confirmed to reporters that a deal had been struck, according to Reuters.
But after reports of a deal emerged, Francois-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s trade minister, turned to social media to declare that an agreement had yet to be concluded. “Despite reports, there is no agreement in principle on TPP,” he tweeted.
According to people close to the talks, a final text was still being worked on, with issues including labour rules under discussion.
Some people briefed on the discussions told the Financial Times that any announcement by leaders on Friday may be an “agreement in principle”, with a few details still to be worked out. The remaining countries in the TPP have been tussling for months over how to suspend certain provisions that the US had insisted on without having to renegotiate a deal that took years to hash out.
But any announcement on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang would highlight the diverging paths on trade in the region and the growing isolation of the US, which is not part of any of the major regional trade initiatives being discussed.
Mr Trump pulled the US out of the TPP in January, on his first full working day in office, after lambasting it on the presidential campaign trail. But the move has been widely criticised in Washington and around the region as a strategic gift to China, which is at the centre of another regional agreement now being negotiated.
Barack Obama, Mr Trump’s predecessor, made the TPP the economic backbone of his “pivot” to Asia strategy and argued that in solidifying trade ties with countries such as Japan, Singapore and Vietnam it would mark a vital part of the long-term response to a rising China.
In a speech on Friday at a business conference being held alongside the Apec summit, Mr Trump is due to lay out in greater detail his White House’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy for engaging the region economically.
But during a trip to the region this week Mr Trump has failed to convince allies such as Japan to launch negotiations to reach new bilateral trade pacts, which the president has insisted would be a better alternative for the US.
Wendy Cutler, who oversaw the Obama administration’s TPP negotiations with Japan and other countries, said the move to go ahead without the US was important as it would bring into effect new strong rules in areas such as intellectual property, free data flows and state-owned enterprises.
“If indeed they are going ahead with this, that is an incredible accomplishment,” she said. “It’s unfortunate the United States is not part of it. But hats off to the other countries for going ahead with this . . . Having these high-standard rules alive in the region will help lift the standards of other trade agreements in the region.”
With other countries, including China, looking at joining the TPP one day, those rules could have an important effect on how business in the region is done for many years to come, she said.