Trade negotiators working on a 12-nation Asia-Pacific deal said that they made signifcant progress in their latest round of talks.
After three days of intensive meetings in Australia, trade leaders said late Sunday they are moving closer to wrapping up work on the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement that would cover 40 percent of the world's gross domestic product.
“We consider that the shape of an ambitious, comprehensive, high standard and balanced deal is crystallizing,” the trade ministers said in a joint statement.
The trade leaders have been meeting over the course of the past few weeks and have made "significant progress" on market access issues and negotiations on the trade and investment rules.
"We will continue to focus our efforts, and those of our negotiating teams, to consult widely at home and work intensely with each other to resolve outstanding issues in order to provide significant economic and strategic benefits for each of us," they said.
But trade experts who question the lack of transparency around the deal argued that the announcement about progress is, at best, vague.
“After yet another lengthy meeting, TPP trade ministers’ official declaration repeats much of the same spin we have seen over the past two years and given the extreme secrecy of the process, there is no way for the public, Congress or press to find out what is really happening," said Lori Wallach, head of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
During the weekend meeting in Sydney, the trade leaders spent most of their time in one-on-one discussions, allowing them to make progress.
The format will "help set the stage to bring the TPP negotiations to finalization."
They are now passing the baton back to the chief negotiators to carry out their instructions.
"We will continue to build on the progress we made at this meeting and will meet again in the coming weeks," they said.
Discussions are likely to continue next month while world leaders gather at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing.
President Obama is heading to meetings in Asia in November and he has said he would like to see the TPP talks nearing conclusion by then.
The U.S. and Japan are still trying to reach a separate, bilateral agreement on agriculture and auto issues.
The deal includes Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.