Japanese negotiator says trade deal with the US possible by spring, but difficulties remain

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TOKYO — A deal between Japan and the U.S. needed to move ahead with a Pacific Rim trade pact is possible by this spring, a top Japanese trade negotiator said Tuesday.

Top negotiators for the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership meet in Hawaii next week. Wendy Cutler, acting deputy U.S. trade representative, will visit Japan for talks beginning Thursday on the politically sensitive issue of dismantling protections for Japan's farm products and for U.S. autos and auto parts.

But Hiroshi Oe, a deputy chief trade negotiator for Japan, said this week's talks were unlikely to produce a breakthrough that would allow an earlier agreement.

"I am not sure we are really ready to close the negotiations this week," Oe told reporters. However, he said an agreement was possible by "this spring."

"We really have to wrap up the negotiations in spring. Now, we are discussing, what is the end of spring? Is the end of May the end of spring? Or early June, which is summer?"

The U.S. and Japan must set a deal before a final agreement among all the countries can be reached.

But deadlines for that have been pushed back so often that suggesting the summer is the deadline would be like "crying wolf," Oe said.

While supporters of the TPP initiative recently have voiced optimism over reaching a deal soon, a final trade pact still faces many obstacles, including approval by the U.S. Congress of so-called Trade Promotion Authority that would give President Barack Obama the authority to "fast-track" a trade agreement. That would limit Congress to a yes or no vote with no opportunity to amend the deal.

Japan and the other countries face a similar arrangement, and approval by the Japanese parliament is likely, given the ruling coalition's strong majorities in both the upper and lower houses.

Oe said Japan was not requiring that the U.S. side have trade promotion authority as a condition for an agreement, but strongly prefers it.

As for lowering barriers to imports of rice and other farm products, Japan "cannot give 100 percent satisfaction to the U.S., but we are aiming at a mutually agreeable solution."

Japan, in turn, is not happy with the degree of market opening for its exports of autos and auto parts, Oe said, noting that they account for a combined 40 percent of Japanese exports to the U.S.

"According to them, the autos are so sensitive," Oe said of the U.S. side. "So we have very difficult negotiations."

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