Japan and the United States are not expected to announce a broad bilateral agreement for a Pacific trade pact when their leaders meet Thursday in Tokyo, as they remain considerably apart over the issue of market access for agricultural products and automobiles.
Akira Amari, minister in charge of Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, on Tuesday signaled that bridging Japan-U.S. gaps over the remaining problems in their bilateral talks related to the TPP would be difficult.
The two countries have been trying to reach a broad accord for announcement when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama meet.
“There is still a considerable distance” between the two sides, Amari said at a press conference.
Bickering between Tokyo and Washington — the two largest economies in the TPP — has held up broader negotiations involving a total of 12 countries. The bilateral summit has been seen by some as a possible opportunity to advance the stalled talks.
Tokyo has sought to retain tariffs on five farm product categories it views as off-limits — rice, wheat, beef and pork, sugar, and dairy products — amid strong concern from the domestic agricultural industry, a politically strong and highly protected sector in the country, over the TPP.
Washington, which has called on Tokyo to further open up its farm market, wants to retain its auto tariffs as long as possible.
With the summit approaching, a total of 63 U.S. House lawmakers on Monday urged U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a letter to press Tokyo to do more to eliminate trade barriers on agricultural products.
The letter also expressed concerns that Japan’s demand to exempt the farm products from tariff cuts “could undermine the careful balance of concessions” achieved by the other 11 TPP members, adding such an attitude could prompt other TPP members to demand similar treatment and put the TPP itself at risk of “unraveling.”
Amari also said that Japan and the United States need to reach a stage where they can “expect” to resolve the issues of agriculture and autos, or “something close to that,” to be able to announce a broad deal, suggesting the two countries are still far from that goal.
On Tuesday, Japan and the United States resumed working-level talks in Tokyo to try to make as much progress as possible before the summit.
Froman will visit Tokyo along with Obama from Wednesday as part of the president’s weeklong Asian tour, his office said.
Amari said he may consider meeting with Froman again prior to the summit “depending on how much progress is made at the working level.”
The two countries have had intense discussions in the past few weeks in light of the summit. Last week, Amari and Froman met for three days in Washington.
Negotiation sources said that Abe and Obama will likely at least hail progress in the TPP negotiations following their talks, with the next TPP ministerial meeting being arranged for late May in Singapore.
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