Ministers of the 12 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations continued talks Friday in Indonesia with an eye to reaching a deal by the year-end, but the absence of US President Barack Obama has clouded the outlook.
The leader of the world's largest economy had been tasked with keeping the complicated multilateral negotiations on track as chairman of a TPP summit slated for Tuesday. But he decided to skip the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and TPP summits due to the US government's partial shutdown, and there is uncertainty on how the meetings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali will proceed without him, observers said.
Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to represent him at the summits, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said.
Japanese TPP minister Akira Amari told reporters after a meeting in the morning that "President Obama has requested that the TPP summit be held as scheduled" despite his absence.
"At the same time, we confirmed that each member country will cooperate to keep momentum on the TPP negotiations toward reaching an agreement within the year," Amari said.
Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo, another participant in the TPP meeting, told reporters that progress towards the TPP agreement will be largely unaffected.
"The negotiation is happening right here at the ministerial level with the chief negotiators," he said. "The speed of the developments of the agreement is not affected" by Obama's absence, he added, because ministers will continue their work, updating leaders on the status of the negotiations and receiving guidance in return.
US Trade Representative Michael Froman, the chair of the TPP ministerial meeting, met with Japan's trade minister Toshimitsu Motegi on Friday to explain about Obama's cancelation of his trip to Indonesia.
Afterward, Motegi told reporters that while Obama will not be present, the two sides "agreed to do their utmost so the momentum for the TPP will not be lost."
But a US trade expert said there are now doubts over how serious other TPP countries would take a US administration that cannot even deal with the US Congress.
The US government partially shut down for the first time since 1995 on Tuesday after Congress failed to agree on a new budget.
"The United States, which has been urging countries to conclude a deal within this year, could lose their trust with the absence of President Obama," said an official dealing with economic issues.
The TPP ministers, who began their meeting Thursday, are expected to instruct their chief negotiators to conclude working-level talks on e-commerce and other fields that are less contentious, while creating a work plan for striking a deal by the end of this year on more difficult areas, such as intellectual property and tariffs.
At the TPP summit to follow the sessions, the negotiating countries plan to issue a leaders' statement saying they have substantively completed their work on the envisaged pact and will ensure it is a 21st-century free trade agreement of high quality, according to negotiation sources.
The 12 countries in the TPP talks — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam — are holding the sessions on the margins of APEC meetings. - Japan Press Pool Service, October 5, 2013.