WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday dashed hopes of a breakthrough on U.S.-Japan trade when President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet in Washington next week, further delaying a major 12-nation Pacific trade pact.
“We’re not there yet,” said Caroline Atkinson, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
A deal between Japan and the United States is vital to clinching a Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, as their economies account for 80 percent of the group. Obama also sees the TPP, which will cover a third of world trade, as an important counterweight to China’s growing clout in the region.
Atkinson said substantial progress was made in intense, high-level negotiations in Tokyo this week but more work is needed, especially on the thorny issues of autos and agriculture.
“We expect the leaders … to have the opportunity to discuss what should be the next steps together. But we do not expect any announcement of a final deal,” she told reporters in a conference call previewing Tuesday’s White House summit.
At the same time, White House officials welcomed momentum on Capitol Hill for legislation to speed such trade deals through Congress, despite resistance from some of Obama’s fellow Democrats who worry that trade accords hurt U.S. jobs.
So-called “fast track” authority to speed such trade deals through the U.S. Congress is the other missing link for the TPP. Although legislation cleared congressional panels this week, it is not expected to come for a full vote until early in May.
Trade ministers from the 12 countries in the proposed pact are due to meet in late May.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said at a conference that negotiators are working to resolve sticking points so that the handful of remaining issues needing political decisions could be “teed up” for ministers.
U.S. officials also offered brighter prospects for announcements planned Monday by the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers unveiling of the first update of U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines since 1997.
Evan Medeiros, Obama’s top Asia adviser, said the revised rules will “significantly expand” Japan’s role in the alliance between Washington and Tokyo and provide the “mechanism for Japan to provide a wider range of support to U.S. forces.”
Constrained by its pacifist Constitution, Japan has for decades been criticized in the United States for free-riding on U.S. military spending.
But Abe plans to send the message that Japan is ready to shoulder more of the burden. Last July his Cabinet adopted a resolution reinterpreting the Constitution to allow Japan’s armed forces to provide military aid to the United States and other friendly countries under attack.
Abe is also looking for fresh U.S. assurances that the United States will come to Japan’s defense in any clash with China, such as over disputed islets in the East China Sea.
When Abe becomes the first Japanese leader to address a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, his words will be closely scrutinized for what, if anything, he says about Japan’s wartime past, still a sensitive issue for Asian neighbors nearly 70 years after the end of World War II.
White House officials responded cautiously to reporters’ questions on whether the administration has made any suggestions on how Abe should handle the matter during his U.S. visit.
Senior Obama aide Ben Rhodes said the administration has in the past encouraged Abe “to constructively address historical issues, consistent with Japan’s past statements on these issues” to foster cooperation and avoid tensions in the region.
Abe’s speech coincides with pressure from critics to erase concerns that he wants to whitewash Japan’s wartime past. A Japanese official said that during his visit Abe will reaffirm Tokyo’s commitment to peace and to past government expressions of remorse and apology over the war.
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