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Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership 'very close': S'pore PM

SINGAPORE--Negotiators are “very close” to completing a U.S.-led Pacific trade pact this year, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said ahead of a crucial meeting in the city-state this weekend.

Trade ministers from 12 countries will meet from Saturday to Tuesday in a bid to iron out kinks in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after negotiators failed to meet a self-imposed deadline to strike a deal by the end of last year.

“I think we are very close to completing it,” Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with Chinese media group Caixin.

“I think, notwithstanding the previous missed targets, I think they are trying very hard, and we ought to be able to close this year,” Lee said in the interview, a transcript of which was sent by his office to AFP on Tuesday.

Trade ministers from Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam are reconvening in Singapore after ending talks in December with several issues still unresolved.

The 12 countries, which make up 40 percent of the global economy, have been divided on a number of issues, including opening up Japan's auto and farm markets as well as limiting the role of state-owned enterprises in the economy.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has put a high priority on the TPP, seeing it as tying the U.S. more firmly to the dynamic Asia-Pacific region at a time that China's clout is rising.

Singapore's Lee warned against a failure to reach a deal this year.

“If we don't close this year, there is not much time left on the American political calendar to get it through Congress and to settle the matter,” he said.

“And when time passes, loose ends get unraveled and then it would be a setback.”

Lee said he hoped the U.S. Congress would pass a bill that would empower the Obama administration to negotiate major trade agreements that the U.S. legislature could approve or reject — without making changes.

Supporters said the four-year extension of the powers under the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which last ended in 2007, is indispensable to speeding up trade negotiations.

The move however faces stiff opposition from House Democrats who feel it is too far-reaching.

Lee said the powers would ensure that U.S. lawmakers would not be able to vote down items in the TPP that they were not in favor of as the pact is a negotiated package.

“So they have to get the TPA, otherwise I think it's a big trouble.”

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