By Gyles Beckford
AUCKLAND (Reuters) - U.S.-led talks in New Zealand on a free trade deal for the Asia-Pacific region have made some progress but have a long way to go to reach a pact to dismantle entrenched trade barriers by the end of next year, the negotiators said on Wednesday.
Several hundred officials from 11 countries have spent more than a week in Auckland for the 15th set of negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which began in March 2010.
New Zealand's chief delegate said the talks had brought new TPP members, Canada and Mexico, into the process and made progress on the language and mechanisms of any deal, as well as more clearly identified what needs to be done on the difficult issues such as intellectual property, environment and investment.
"There is considerable amount of work to do," David Walker told a media briefing, adding there was a common desire among the 11 nations to reach a deal next year.
"On the various market access negotiations, discussions continue as we move towards construction of an overall package, which meet the ambitions set out by leaders and ministers and is acceptable to all," he said.
There is no formal deadline for an agreement, but October next year is being targeted to coincide with the annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). The next round of talks will be held in March in Singapore.
Walker and other chief delegates did not spell out the major roadblocks to a final deal, but the sensitive issue of pharmaceuticals, where the United States wants to see greater patent protection for its drug companies was not discussed.
Critics say the TPP has been hijacked by the United States, which is looking to benefit its own corporations and counter growing Chinese influence.
Other difficult issues that the talks have struggled with have been a common dispute resolution process, which could see government measures challenged by private companies, and greater intellectual property protection.
Australia's chief negotiator Hamish McCormick reaffirmed that his country would not sign any deal that allowed foreign companies to challenge his country's laws and regulations.
The original four nation TPP of New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, and Brunei, now includes the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Peru, and most recently Canada and Mexico. Thailand and Japan are looking at joining.
Collectively the TPP countries represent 650 million people with a total gross domestic product of around $21 trillion.
Last month, talks were launched for a new 16 nation free trade agreement -- as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) -- grouping the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand.
(Editing by Michael Perry)