Headway made on trans-Pacific pact, but thorny issues remain

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Ministers from 12 nations trying to create a trans-Pacific trade pact said on Tuesday they have regained momentum for resolving the thorny issues of tariffs and market access, though they were unable to reach a final agreement.

Speaking after a two-day meeting in Singapore, the ministers said recent bilateral talks between the United States and Japan helped breathe life into the stalled talks for the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

"I would say there is almost a sense of urgency about capturing that momentum and holding it and using it to get ourselves a lot further down the line in the next few weeks," Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb told a press conference following the meeting.

The original aim of the TPP was to abolish all tariffs between member countries. But it hasn't been possible to reach an agreement on doing so, as the idea faces opposition, particularly in Japan.

While governments were keen to stress the progress made at this week's meeting, it is unclear whether a deal can be clinched before U.S. congressional elections in November.

Malaysian Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed said after the Singapore meeting, "There has been some progress. Of course it is not entirely satisfactory. We have some way to go on market access issues."

The ministers said they had asked their chief negotiators to meet again in July.

Japan's economy minister, Akira Amari, said in Singapore on Monday that Tokyo has told Pacific trading partners it will not abolish tariffs in the five agricultural sectors it considers sacred, which include rice, dairy products and beef and pork.

Long-running differences over tariffs between the U.S. and Japan remain, though the two governments said some progress was made at a summit in Tokyo last month.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have made finalizing the TPP key planks of their economic policies.

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