Ministers and officials representing the 12 countries of the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership, plus China and South Korea, began talks in Chile on Tuesday, but any concrete decision on how a new trade pact might look seemed far off.
The TPP, which would have included about 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, was effectively torpedoed after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in January.
Chile, a keen free-trade enthusiast and one of the signatories of the original agreement, invited TPP representatives to its Pacific-facing coastal city of Vina del Mar to try to thrash out a way forward.
But officials said the conversation is just the beginning of a long and uncertain road.
“We see this as an opportunity to have a frank round-the-table conversation to gauge where each of the countries are and then to work out how we might consider what next steps there may be, if there are any,” New Zealand trade minister Todd McClay told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the conference. “I’m not coming here expecting to make any decisions this week.”
However, McClay expressed optimism that “there is life still in the TPP” and said he expected the signatory countries to clarify a way ahead “in a few months.”
Chile said its best hope at this point was more meetings.
“If we can get some clarity on what is ahead then that more than justifies the meeting,” Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz told reporters.
The United States will represented by its ambassador to Chile, while China, which criticized the TPP and was not part of it, has sent its special envoy for Latin America, Yin Hengmin.
Both China and Chile have emphasized that the meeting – officially, the “High Level Dialogue on Integration Initiatives in the Asia-Pacific Region” – is not just about the TPP.
Nonetheless, what future, if any, the trade deal may have appears to be the dominant discussion topic over the two-day meeting.
Possibilities include redesigning it without the United States or building instead on the proposed Southeast Asian-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Signatories may also use the TPP as a springboard for new bilateral deals, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said.
Certainly, officials say, there is a reluctance to scrap the TPP entirely.
“These 11 countries have been negotiating with each other for 8 or 9 years, so we know a lot about each other,” said McClay.