U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer expressed concern Wednesday about a proposal by Japan’s trade minister to create a 16-nation free-trade agreement in Asia and Oceania, saying it could damage U.S. interests in the region.

“What makes the United States uncomfortable is when people start talking about somehow trying to exclude the United States from Asia,” the envoy said at a lecture in Tokyo. “We believe as a Pacific nation, we have tremendous interests in Asia and we want to be a part of Asia.

“If there is skepticism on our part, it only comes from the notion that somehow someone might be trying to exclude us from the area. That would be something that would not be met with favor in the United States,” he said.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai proposed earlier this month that Japan ask the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand to consider launching regionwide FTA talks in 2008.

If realized, an Asia-Oceania FTA could rival the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement — which groups the United States, Canada and Mexico — according to government sources.

Asked about the possibility that Washington would consider signing an FTA with Tokyo, Schieffer said such an agreement should be “comprehensive” and include agricultural trade. Japan heavily protects its farm sector, which the envoy called “a main obstacle” to a trade pact.

Schieffer said the United States has recently entered into FTA negotiations with South Korea because Seoul agreed to “consider alternatives” to its policy of strongly protecting the country’s farmers.

As for the bilateral row over Japan’s reinstated import ban on U.S. beef over mad cow disease worries, the ambassador said a perception gap exists between consumers of the two countries on the safety of U.S. beef.

“Japanese are absolutely stunned when I tell them that Americans have great confidence and faith in the system that puts meat on their table every day,” Schieffer said.

The envoy said once Tokyo decides to lift its ban on U.S. beef, Washington will try to convince Japanese consumers of its safety.

“We believe the science supports us. . . . We can present a rational argument to them on why our product is healthy and safe, but as long as the market is closed to us, we really are not able to make that argument,” he said.

Japan reinstated its import ban on U.S. beef after backbones were found in a veal shipment at Narita airport in January, in violation of a bilateral agreement banning the material as a safeguard against mad cow disease.

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