UPDATE 1-Trade ministers see headway on trans-Pacific pact, but thorny issues remain

Tue May 20, 2014 11:51am EDT

(Adds comments from U.S. official)

SINGAPORE May 20 (Reuters) - Ministers from 12 nations trying to create a trans-Pacific trade pact said on Tuesday they have regained momentum in efforts to resolve 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 had helped breathe life into stalled negotiations on the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) 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 among member countries. But it hasn't been possible to reach an agreement on doing so, as the idea faces opposition, particularly in Japan. The deal also aims to set common rules on issues as diverse as labor and intellectual property.

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 and will hold bilateral talks in the meantime. Further U.S.-Japan talks on farm exports are scheduled to take place in Washington next week.

Japan's economy minister, Akira Amari, said 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.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said the United States is still pressing for tariff elimination to the "maximum extent possible."

Last month's summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who have made finalising the TPP key planks of their economic policies, gave a clear push to the talks, Froman said.

Japanese media have reported that TPP countries would agree to set copyright protection for music and written works at 70 years, but Froman said work was still needed on both market access and common rules.

"There are a number of rules issues, including on the (intellectual property) chapter, (where) we don't have final agreement, there are still outstanding issues to work through," he said on a conference call for reporters. (Reporting by Rachel Armstrong and Masayuki Kitano; Additional reporting by Krista Hughes in Washington; Editing by Richard Borsuk; and Peter Galloway)

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