Departing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman has suggested that ministers of major players at trade liberalization talks of the World Trade Organization should meet despite the slim chance of clinching a deal before the April 30 deadline, Japan’s trade minister said Friday.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai discussed the prospects for the WTO negotiations during a Friday morning teleconference with Portman, in which Portman introduced his successor, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab. Portman said it will take four to eight weeks for the U.S. Congress to approve the personnel change, METI officials said.

Although WTO members are missing their self-imposed deadline for agreeing on details of tariff-cutting and other liberalization measures in farm and industrial sectors, Washington believes it would still be significant for the ministers to confirm the status quo of the negotiations, the USTR was quoted as telling Nikai.

Portman said he will call WTO Director General Pascal Lamy shortly to convey that view. Nikai expressed support for the idea, the ministry officials added.

If the ministers do not meet, momentum in WTO negotiations would be lost, making it difficult for the members to conclude the current Doha Round of trade liberalization talks by the end of the year, the Japanese officials quoted Portman as saying.

Lingering differences between developed and developing countries as well as food importers and exporters have prolonged the WTO negotiations, causing members to repeatedly miss self-imposed deadlines.

Meanwhile, Nikai and Portman agreed that the two countries will hold discussions on the Japanese trade minister’s recent proposal of creating a 16-nation Asia-Oceania free-trade zone, as some quarters have expressed U.S. concerns about the idea, the officials said.

U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer said Wednesday he believes the idea is interesting, but suggested it would be unwelcome if it leads to exclusion of the United States from the region.

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