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[TOKYO] Japan sought on Friday to hold bilateral ministerial trade talks with the United States as the allies race to seal a bilateral trade deal, seen as crucial for a broader trans-Pacific free trade pact, ahead of a summit later this month.
Economics Minister Akira Amari said formal talks with his US counterpart depended on progress of working-level meetings aimed at narrowing gaps over the agricultural and auto sectors.
Amari's comments followed the submission of a bill to the US Congress that would give President Barack Obama the authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact. Passage of the bill, which Japan sees as crucial for success in the TPP talks, is far from assured.
"You can say that we have just cleared one obstacle to TPP negotiations," Mr Amari said.
"Japan is holding working-level talks with the United States today. Depending on how those go, I want to decide today whether or not we can proceed to more formal minister-level talks," Mr Amari said, adding that a timeframe for his decision has not been set.
The United States and Japan, the biggest and third-biggest economies, account for about 80 per cent of the economic output of the 12-member TPP, making them the pacesetters of the multilateral trade talks.
The bilateral talks have been stymied by Japan's efforts to protect politically powerful agriculture sectors such as beef, and disputes over both countries' auto markets.
Washington and Tokyo see strategic value to a broad TPP deal as forming a counterweight to rising China, which has not joined the group.
Asked about the TPP, Hong Lei, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, said there was momentum in trade liberalization in the Asia-Pacific and that China supported open regionalism.
Japanese media said Japan and the United States were aiming for meetings between Mr Amari and US Trade Representative Michael Froman on Sunday and Monday, depending on the outcome of the ongoing talks between US Acting Deputy Trade Representative Wendy Cutler and Japan's deputy chief trade negotiator, Hiroshi Oe.
Neither Japan nor the United States confirmed the reports. "There are still issues to be solved. We will do the utmost so that a parliament resolution (to protect five agricultural products) can be seen to be kept," said Agriculture Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi.
"Ministerial meetings could bring about good results only if working-level negotiations make enough progress."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is due to meet Mr Obama in Washington on April 28 for a summit that will also focus on security issues.