WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, New Zealand and nine other countries negotiating a free trade pact in the Asia-Pacific region could formally decide next month whether to allow Japan into the talks, New Zealand's trade minister said on Monday.
"Look, I'm sure we will find a way to say yes. I don't think that's the issue. The issue is the terms and the timing" and the method of proceeding with Japan in the talks, New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said in an interview after a speech to a U.S. business group.
Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Japan's interest in joining U.S.-led negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), setting off a round of consultations between TPP members on whether to allow the world's third largest economy to join.
Top trade officials from all the TPP countries will be in Surabaya, Indonesia on April 20-21 for the annual trade ministers meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, a 21-member regional group that includes non-TPP countries such as China and Russia.
Asked if a formal decision on Japan's application could come at that meeting, Groser said: "That's possible ... The TPP will be a side event (at the APEC meeting), but the sometimes the side event may overshadow the main event."
"Japan coming into a trade agreement, which is premised on comprehensive liberalization, is a big deal. It's one of the biggest developments in world trade politics in 20 years."
Although Japan has a number of agricultural and other sensitivities, Groser said he was confident Tokyo could be brought into the talks without jeopardizing the goal of a deal that removes barriers in all products.
"At the same time, every country has sensitivities" and it's up to trade negotiators to find methods or "modalities that allow those sensitivities to be handled in a mature and politically subtle way," Groser said.
Current TPP members - which also include Australia, Mexico, Canada, Singapore, Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei - have a goal of finishing the talks this year, possibly as early as October at the annual APEC leaders meeting in Bali.
"I think we are in striking distance of getting a political deal," Groser said. "Whether we get it precisely in October, November, December or it drags on a little bit longer than, only time will can tell."
WTO DIRECTOR GENERAL JOB
Groser, a former New Zealand ambassador to the World Trade Organization, is also one of nine candidates in the running to succeed WTO Director General Pascal Lamy, who is stepping down later this year after two terms in the job.
That list is expected to be whittled down over next couple of months, with a final decision due by late May. Groser is competing with candidates from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Mideast for world trade's top international post.
In his speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Groser said the WTO members must confront the fact that the institution was "losing relevancy" because of its failure to complete the Doha round of world trade talks launched in late 2001.
Heading into its next ministerial meeting in December, members should aim for a "trade facilitation" package to streamline customs clearing procedures plus agreement on a few additional issues to prove that it is "not completely dysfunctional," Groser said.
Beyond that, the WTO should once again strive for a big agreement to conclude the Doha round, instead of shedding sections of the negotiations as it has done since 2003 in a failed attempt to reach consensus, Groser said. L2N0CH0SY
That means sticking to the negotiating mandate agreed in 2001 in the capital city of Qatar and going beyond that to incorporate new issues not envisioned then, he said.
"We have to build it up, piece by piece. Above all, it has to be done very discreetly," Groser said.
Striving for a deal before the end of U.S. President Barack Obama's second term in January 2017 is "an obvious deadline, but I'm also opposed to artificially trying to link negotiating timetables to electoral timetables," he said in the interview.
"Look, we've got to have some sense that we're trying to do it in the next few years, for heaven's sakes. But you know, if it takes longer than that, it takes longer than that."
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)