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US Trade Representative Michael Froman (centre) speaks during a news conference of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Ministerial meeting in Singapore February 25, 2014. — Reuters picUS Trade Representative Michael Froman (centre) speaks during a news conference of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Ministerial meeting in Singapore February 25, 2014. — Reuters picKUALA LUMPUR, Feb 27 — Representatives from the 12 Pacific Rim nations involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) left Singapore yesterday with little to show for four days’ worth of intense negotiations.

The BBC’s headline yesterday screamed, “No deal”, despite earlier optimism — particularly from the United States — of possible progress ahead of President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Asia in April.

The 12 prospective TPPA members, however, said in a joint statement that they had made “further strides towards a final agreement.”

“While some issues remain, we have charted a path forward to resolve them in the context of a comprehensive and balanced outcome,” read the statement, cited by Singapore-based broadcaster Channel News Asia.

Try reading the quote again. Make any sense?

If it does not, then you are probably as clueless about the TPPA as the half billion people living in Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam — whose governments are engaged in the 12-way talks.

And with details of the controversial free trade pact hidden in the murk of a so-called confidentiality clause imposed by the United States, what could we possibly glean from such cryptic communications?

1. It is as clear as mud

Under the United States-initiated TPPA, prospective member nations hold joint negotiations to flesh out general policy, but the United States also holds parallel bilateral talks with each of the other 11 nations, all hush-hush.

Unlike the pending Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal with the European Union (EU) — which bares every single detail to every EU citizen — that right to information has been taken out of the TPPA negotiations.

How will this deal pan out? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

2. There is no end in sight

Sure, they have set a deadline to finalise the agreement by year end. They said the same thing before heading into the previous round of negotiations — incidentally also hosted by Singapore — last December.

There are simply too many competing interests to expect any quick resolution to disputes over who should make concessions and for which industries.

For example, Japan will not budge on its robust domestic agriculture industry and Malaysia is adamant on keeping its affirmative action policies.

Which brings us to ...

3. How far can Malaysia counter pressure from the United States?

Sadly, not all nations are equal.

No matter how good its negotiators, Malaysia is up against arguably the world’s most powerful nation.

As much as Malaysia wants to exclude from the deal areas concerning Bumiputera issues, government procurement and state-owned enterprises among other things, going at it alone against the United States may not be the most effective strategy.

You can try convincing a bully twice your size that he gains no benefit from punching you in the face, but chances are the bully knows he holds the advantage and lands one on your kisser anyway.

With four out of the 12 negotiating parties coming from ASEAN, it is curious why they are not making a joint stand.

Indonesia opted out of the TPPA over concerns that any deal would undermine its affirmative action policies. Why not Malaysia?

The United States insists that there is more good to be gained from being part of the TPPA, but why did they not then try and convince all 10 ASEAN members to band together to even out the odds?

But then again, maybe ASEAN nations did try to present a united front. We do not know. Darn that confidentiality clause.

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