TPP11 ministers push for specifics on path forward; Lighthizer rules out U.S. joining deal

Hours after the announcement, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, during the concluding press conference at an APEC trade ministers meeting, ruled out any possibility that the U.S. could eventually join the 11-nation pact — citing instead the Trump administration’s preference to negotiate bilateral deals with “willing” countries in the region.

“The Ministers agreed on the value of realising the TPP’s benefits and to that end, they agreed to launch a process to assess options to bring the comprehensive, high quality Agreement into force expeditiously, including how to facilitate membership for the original signatories,” the ministers said in a May 21 ministerial statement.

“The Ministers tasked their senior trade officials to engage to take forward the preparation of this assessment. Ministers asked for this work to be completed before they meet the margins of the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting on 10-11 November 2017 in Da Nang, Viet Nam,” the statement adds.

The TPP ministerial — co-chaired by Vietnam and New Zealand — was held on May 21 on the sidelines of the APEC trade ministers meeting. It comes after the 11 TPP nations met for the first time in Chile in March to discuss options for the agreement to enter into force without U.S. participation.

The ministers’ statement touted TPP’s “balanced outcome” and its “strategic and economic significance” and said the trade officials at the meeting “underlined their vision for the TPP to expand to include other economies that can accept the high standards of the TPP.”

“These efforts would address our concern about protectionism, contribute to maintaining open markets, strengthening the rules-based international trading system, increasing world trade, and raising living standards,” the statement continues.

While the U.S. is not explicitly mentioned, the statement calls for all “the original signatories” to be involved — “and of course that’s about the U.S.,” New Zealand trade minister Todd McClay told Inside U.S. Trade. McClay said that while his country “would prefer” the U.S. be part of the deal, New Zealand accepts the U.S. position.

Lighthizer did not attend the TPP ministerial, but sources told Inside U.S. Trade the other nations that did send representatives were still hoping for a change of heart in the U.S. administration.

While making clear on May 21 that the U.S. will not change its mind on TPP, Lighthizer pledged that the U.S. is not “turning our back on this area — perhaps exactly the opposite.”

“The United States pulled out of the TPP and it’s not going to change that decision,” he said. “The president is committed to this area, so we’re by no means pulling back. And TPP11 can make their own decisions; the United States makes its decisions — that’s what sovereign nations do. But we certainly expect to stay engaged and I believe at some point we’ll have a series of bilateral agreements with willing partners in this part of the world.”

He noted that negotiating separate bilaterals with the individual TPP countries will take time, but, he added, “we expect to put in the time and do what is necessary.”

Hearing Lighthizer talk about the importance of the region for the U.S. and trade, McClay said, “is quite pleasing.”

The 11 countries’ senior officials are expected to meet in Japan in July, McClay told Inside U.S. Trade. McClay, in the May 21 interview, said each of the remaining 11 signatories “will have different reasons for their involvement” in the agreement — and issues it will want addressed.

“What we talked about in part today is where a country has an issue, we will seek together with their official to try and find solutions to that, not go back to the drawing board and say ‘let’s renegotiate,’” he said. “The economic benefits of course have changed with the U.S. no longer involved, but I think the strategic value of TPP remains very important to us.”

During his two-day trip to Hanoi, Lighthizer held bilateral meetings with several APEC economies as well as “pull-asides” and meet-and-greets with others. He met with the trade officials from Mexico, Canada, Japan, China, Vietnam and Australia.

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal told Inside U.S. Trade on May 21 his meeting with Lighthizer was “very constructive” and the TPP ministerial was “great,” adding that the statement following the meeting was “very clear.”

“We definitely want to keep the momentum on TPP and we want to pursue — following the different opinions of the 11 members to define and craft a way we will go ahead — and pursue TPP,” he said.

Guajardo Villarreal said TPP11 is as much a priority for the Mexican government as is updating NAFTA, and added that both could be done simultaneously.

A ministerial for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — often dubbed a competing Asia-Pacific deal to TPP — is slated to be held in Hanoi on May 22. Sources said that agreement is unlikely to be concluded by the end of the year, as China has often said it would be. — Jenny Leonard (jleonard@iwpnews.com)

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