WELLINGTON/WASHINGTON - Pacific Rim countries are gearing up for a busy six weeks now that the U.S. Congress has approved legislation key to sealing a massive trade pact reaching from Canada to New Zealand, spurring a rush to get the deal over the finish line.
Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari said he hopes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) can be wrapped up by the end of July, and New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said he sees a U.S. summer break in August as a deadline.
"If we haven't actually got most of it by then, it gets very difficult," he said in an interview. "It's going to be fast and furious in the next six weeks."
It took more than six weeks for U.S. lawmakers to agree to grant President Barack Obama "fast-track" authority to expedite passage of trade deals through Congress, squeezing an already tight time frame, given elections in Canada in October and the United States and Peru in 2016.
Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb said once Obama has signed the legislation into law, the way will be paved for ministers to meet "in the near future with the aim of concluding these long-running negotiations."
The 12 TPP partners have started to discuss timing for the ministerial meeting, a source close to the negotiations said.
Washington says that if the TPP is agreed on in late July or early August and all goes well, the deal could be up for a final vote in Congress in the first half of December. Other countries also have to seek lawmakers' approval.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said the next steps include phone calls, videoconferences and visits among TPP members to lay the groundwork for a ministerial meeting.
"What we are trying to do now is work through and resolve all the issues that we can that don't require ministerial decision-making, to limit the number of issues that the ministers ... need to take up," he told a Foreign Policy magazine forum.
But there are major issues still outstanding, including monopoly periods for biologic drugs and phase-out periods for tariffs.
Canada has so far avoided opening its protected dairy market to more imports, frustrating both the United States and New Zealand.
"I'm not comfortable with the deal that's on the table for dairying, and that will be our overriding priority. If we don't get a better deal, we won't be signing what's on the table at the moment," Groser said.