Free-trade talks between the United States and 10 countries in the Asia-Pacific region could stretch into late next year, especially if Japan joins the negotiations, former U.S. trade officials said on Wednesday.
"While it's true that meaningful progress has been made over the last 16 rounds, the negotiations are not close to conclusion by any reasonable measure," Jay Eizenstat, a former U.S. trade negotiator, said at a Washington International Trade Association event.
Even if Japan stays out of the talks, "I think it would be improbable to conclude negotiations this year. With the involvement of Japan, ... it's optimistic to think they will be concluded by the end of next year," Eizenstat said.
The 11 countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact want to reach an accord this year, possibly as early as October, when regional leaders will gather in Bali for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
Japan, the world's third-largest economy, asked in the past month to join the talks and is awaiting a formal decision by other TPP members.
That could come this month at an APEC trade ministers meeting in Surabaya, Indonesia. But even then, the Obama administration intends to give Congress 90 days notice before starting talks with Japan.
"There's a lot of things (like Japan joining the talks) ... that are happening that make this very complex and keeps adding to the difficulty of getting this done," said Allen Johnson, a former chief U.S. agricultural trade negotiator.
Since Japan is such an economic powerhouse, it will be much harder for the United States to demand that it eliminate virtually all of its agricultural tariffs, which has been Washington's approach with smaller free-trade partners, Johnson said.
Other issues with Japan, such as barriers to its auto and insurance markets, are expected to be tough to resolve by the end of this year, the former trade officials said.
The current TPP members are the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. Canada and Mexico joined the negotiations at the 15th round in New Zealand.
Don Johnson, a former textile trade negotiator and former member of Congress, said Vietnam is pushing hard for the United States to remove tariffs and other barriers to its clothing exports, but is running into opposition from some U.S. lawmakers.
"Even though we're heading into the 17th round (next month in Peru), we haven't reached the point now where we can tell exactly what (the deal) is going to look like," Johnson said.
"Of course, everyone would like to see it end this year, but that seems fairly optimistic," he said. (Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Xavier Briand)