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Japan, US aim for Pacific trade pact progress before summit
[TOKYO] Japanese and US officials will meet from Wednesday in a bid to strike a two-way deal that would give momentum to a pan-Pacific free-trade pact, the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in time for a leaders' summit late this month.
Success, however, depends heavily on whether the US Congress, which returns from recess this week, will approve measures to ease passage of trade deals, or trade promotion authority (TPA), Japanese officials have said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet US President Barack Obama on April 28 at a summit in Washington that is also expected to focus on security issues.
Japan said US Acting Deputy Trade Representative Wendy Cutler and USTR Chief Agriculture negotiator Darci Vetter would travel to Tokyo for talks with Japan's deputy chief trade negotiator, Hiroshi Oe, and economic ambassador Takeo Mori.
Discussions are expected to focus on remaining gaps over agriculture and the auto industry.
"We think it would be good if the two leaders could announce something positive," a Japanese government source said recently.
"We are hoping that the US-Japan can send a good message."
Japan wants to protect farm products such as rice, wheat, sugar, diary products, beef and pork, while the United States argues Japan has non-tariff barriers in its auto sector.
Both allies, however, are keen for a TPP deal they see as central to America's "rebalance" of its strategic focus to Asia, in response to China's growing clout.
"I don't know if they (Abe and Obama) will use the word'agreement'," said another Japanese source. "There are lots of possible expressions such as 'good discussions', 'significant progress', 'epoch-making progress' or'steady progress'."
Japan's economy minister Akira Amari has urged Washington to push the TPA through Congress and expressed hope he can meet US Trade Representative Michael Froman to clinch a trade deal before the summit.
Mr Abe has cited agricultural reform among the key structural changes needed to spur long-term economic growth.
Last Thursday, Akira Banzai, head of powerful farming lobby group JA-Zenchu, said he would resign in August after the cabinet approved a bill weakening the group's clout and freeing up local cooperatives.
That resignation could strengthen Mr Abe's hand in reaching a deal, some experts said. "Banzai's prolonged departure will limit the organization's ability to mobilize resistance to TPP," wrote Tobias Harris, a senior associate at consultancy Teneo Intelligence.
A strong showing by Mr Abe's ruling bloc in a string of local elections this past Sunday could also smooth the way for a trade deal.