Business

Robert Lighthizer says trade talks with Japan likely to start in March

Kyodo, Bloomberg

The United States and Japan will likely launch trade talks in March, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Wednesday, suggesting the dialogue would begin earlier than had been anticipated.

Washington’s top trade negotiator made the remarks during congressional testimony. The bilateral talks had been expected to begin in April or May as the U.S. first needs to focus on ongoing negotiations with China to settle a tariff war.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed last September to start the negotiations. Tokyo has said talks on a trade deal with Washington will focus primarily on goods, seeming to preclude a more wide-ranging free trade agreement.

The first meeting will see Japan and the United States determining the scope of trade negotiations in agriculture and industrial products.

As Trump has taken issue with his country’s trade deficit with major exporters like Japan, the focus would be on whether the two nations will take up nontariff measures — such as an import cap on Japanese cars.

For such nontariff measures, Japan is seen as hoping to focus on areas where bilateral consultations would be easier, including customs procedures. But speculation has grown that the U.S. will push for a review of regulations on medicine and medical equipment.

Abe has been promoting free trade as part of his growth strategy for the export-reliant Japanese economy.

As Japan has braced for the launch of bilateral talks with the U.S. — its key trading partner — both a revised Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade accord and Japan’s economic partnership agreement with the European Union have taken effect.

In the same congressional testimony, Lighthizer also said the U.S. is pushing for a trade deal with China that includes “significant structural changes” to the Asian nation’s economic model, as well as provisions that ensure Beijing keeps its promises.

It’s still too early to tell if China will concede to U.S. demands, the top trade negotiator for the Trump administration said, with plans underway for Trump to invite his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for a summit to finalize a potential agreement. Lighthizer’s comments contrast with Trump’s more optimistic remarks this week when he raised hopes for an imminent deal.

“This administration is pressing for significant structural changes that would allow for a more level playing field — especially when it comes to issues of intellectual property rights and technology transfers,” Lighthizer said Wednesday in prepared testimony before the House Ways and Means committee. U.S. stocks extended their decline.

The issues on the table between the U.S. and China “are too serious to be resolved with promises of additional purchases,” said Lighthizer, who is leading the negotiations for the Trump administration. “We need new rules.”

Any agreement with Beijing must be enforceable, he added. “We at USTR are very aware of the history of our trading relationship with China, and the disappointments that have resulted from promises that were not kept.”

Trump this week raised the prospect that he could sign a new trade deal with Xi, as both sides expressed optimism following the conclusion of the latest round of talks. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said this week that a leaders’ meeting for late March at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida is being tentatively planned.

Trump’s hint at a deal-clinching summit with Xi underscores the sense that the two nations are near to an agreement, more than seven months since the U.S. first imposed tariffs on Chinese imports, setting off a conflict that has cast a cloud over the global economy.

But with Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam ending without any agreements — a diplomatic effort in which China played a critical role — the risk of a setback remains significant.

Trump has extended a deadline to raise tariffs on Chinese goods beyond this week, citing progress in the latest round of talks that wrapped up Sunday in Washington. He didn’t specify how long he’d extend the tariff truce. China has repeatedly promised to ramp up purchases of American goods, including soybeans and energy products.