WASHINGTON – The United States is stepping up efforts to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact soon, a move that also boosts hopes for a deal with Japan that would be necessary for the goal.
Unlike the situation some months ago, there has been much talk by U.S. government leaders and lawmakers as well as agricultural groups on how to strike a deal over the TPP initiative on such occasions as a chief negotiators’ meeting that ended Sunday in New York.
“Various movements have emerged in the United States” recently, Japanese Ambassador to the United States Kenichiro Sasae told reporters in late January.
“We welcome President (Barack) Obama leading a bid to strengthen the momentum,” Sasae said, referring to the U.S. president’s annual State of the Union address last month, in which he said his administration will seek “strong” trade deals including the U.S.-led TPP.
Obama in his State of the Union Address asked Congress to give him fast-track authority to conclude the negotiations over the deal, which have already lasted nearly five years.
If the president is given the power, formally called trade promotion authority or TPA, the government will only have to ask Congress whether it backs a deal across the board without revisions.
Obama made a similar call in his address in 2014, but there was a clear difference this year as a majority of the audience consisted of Republicans, who are generally more positive about free trade than Democrats.
Days after Obama’s speech, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said he was confident a TPP deal would be concluded within months, during a session of the Senate’s Finance Committee, which handles trade issues.
Orrin Hatch, the Republican chairman of the committee, expressed his willingness to work on a bill for TPA soon, telling the session: “I want to make one thing clear. The time for TPA is now.”
The moves came as observers and officials from 12 countries negotiating for a TPP shared the view that the clock is ticking on their bid to sign an agreement before the U.S. public’s interest shifts to the 2016 presidential election.
A positive sign also emerged last month for settling Japan-U.S. disputes over TPP-related issues such as exceptional tariffs on beef, pork and other agricultural produce.
Japan and the United States account for some 80 percent of the combined gross domestic product under the envisioned TPP.
The National Pork Producers Council, a U.S. agricultural group known for its hard-line stance on Japan over TPP negotiations, surprised people involved in the bilateral deal when the council said it is “all in” on TPA.
“Significant progress has been made with respect to Japan’s market access offer on pork,” Howard Hill, president of the council, said in a statement. Last year, the council proposed excluding Japan from the TPP negotiations unless there was progress on the exceptional tariff issue.
The council did not elaborate on why it changed its position, but a Japanese government official presumed the group that thought now is the best time to make a deal.
“The U.S. and Japan do not agree to a bilateral deal on market access. Until a few weeks ago, I would have shared the skepticism about that,” Matthew Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said at a recent event.
“I think things have moved substantially in the last few weeks,” said Goodman, a former senior official in the White House under Obama.
But Goodman noted it is premature to talk about the time frame for a proposed TPA bill and the TPP talks, as it took up to 10 months before TPA was finally introduced in past cases.
Details of ongoing negotiations between Tokyo and Washington have not been made public, but people familiar with the talks said Japan has proposed some concessions, such as sharp cuts in exceptional tariffs on beef and pork.
While the proposals are likely to draw strong reactions from Japanese farmers, who in general fear an influx of cheaper overseas products, William Brooks, a U.S. expert on relations with Japan, said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can strike a deal despite the resistance.
Brooks, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, said that Abe’s government is trying to restructure agriculture as a growth industry and that its position on TPP until now has been accepted by the public.
“I don’t think he has anything to worry about as long as he is popular,” Brooks said.
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