The United States and eight other countries negotiating a free trade pact in the Asia Pacific region remain undecided on a nearly seven-month-old bid by Japan, Canada and Mexico to join the talks, the U.S. Trade Representative's office said on Tuesday.
Trade "ministers again welcomed the interest of Canada, Japan, and Mexico in joining the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and discussed the progress of each TPP country's respective bilateral consultations with Canada, Japan, and Mexico," USTR said in a statement from Kazan, Russia.
"No decisions were made on the entry of any of these TPP candidates," USTR said, adding consultations would continue.
Russia is hosting the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum this year, and trade ministers from the 21 member economies gathered in Kazan for talks on Monday and Tuesday. The nine TPP countries are also members of APEC, as are the three applicants.
U.S. industry and members of Congress have raised a number of concerns about Japan's bid to join the TPP negotiations, fearing that Tokyo is not prepared to address longstanding U.S. concerns about access to its automotive market or to liberalize services and agricultural trade.
Canada is under pressure to agree to reform its agricultural supply management programs, while Mexico is generally regarded as being in the best position of the three to join the talks.
The nine current TPP countries are negotiating what they describe as a "21st Century" trade agreement that would go further than previous pacts in raising standards in areas like labor, environment and intellectual property rights protection and opening markets to more trade.
The United States also hopes the deal will establish new rules for state-owned enterprises to ensure they do not have an unfair advantage over private companies.
"Negotiators are working to complete an agreement as quickly as possible as directed by TPP Leaders at Honolulu," USTR said, referring to the annual APEC meeting hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama last year.
TPP ministers set no formal deadline for finishing the talks, which date back to the administration of former President George W. Bush and were formally restarted in March 2010.
The nine current TPP countries are the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
They will hold a 14th round of negotiations next month in San Diego with a goal of finishing as much of the legal text as possible, USTR said. But that would still leave a number of tough market access issues for negotiators to thrash out.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will host the next APEC leaders' summit in Vladivostok in September.
The White House has already said Obama will not attend because he will be on the campaign trail ahead of elections on Nov. 6. (Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Walsh)