US commerce secretary urges Japan to be bolder in opening its markets as trade pact talks lag

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TOKYO — U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is urging Japan to be bolder in opening its markets to help reach a deal on a pan-Pacific trade agreement.

Pritzker, who is leading the Commerce Department's first trade mission to Japan in two decades, said Tuesday that U.S. and Japanese negotiators were closing the gap on trade in farm goods and vehicles but that there were still "tough issues" to work on.

"It is time for all of us to be bold. Incremental steps will not lead us to the high-standard outcome that we all agreed to pursue when we joined the negotiations," Pritzker told a group of U.S. and Japanese business executives. She said "strong outcomes" were needed in both agriculture and auto trade talks to get a deal approved by the U.S. Congress and Japanese lawmakers.

Japan is the second largest source of foreign direct investment in the United States and its fourth largest trading partner overall.

The 12-nation trade pact, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's trade policy and his effort to shift U.S. strategic attention to Asia. Pritzker said it could yield tens of billions of dollars a year in economic gains and increased exports for each side.

The pact, aimed at cutting tariffs and setting trade rules, is seen as a precursor to a future wide free-trade arrangement for the entire Pacific Rim region.

Yet, an agreement has remained elusive, with informal deadlines long passed. Critics of the plan say the negotiations are too secretive and are likely to favor the interests of big multinational corporations over those of ordinary workers and consumers.

Apart from the U.S. and Japan, other countries negotiating the trade deal are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. But a deal between the U.S. and Japan, the two largest economies, is considered vital to its success.

Executives from 20 leading medical and energy technology companies paid thousands of dollars each to join the trade mission to Japan and South Korea, Pritzker's first visit to Asia as commerce secretary.

The group includes huge conglomerates Cargill Inc. and The Dow Chemical Co., energy companies such as Oregon LNG and companies specializing in leading edge medical technologies.

Apart from the trade talks, the U.S. is discussing ways Japan can open its annual $300 billion health care market wider to foreign companies, said Pritzker, citing uncertainties over insurance reimbursements for medicines and other treatments as a key issue.

The last such trade mission to Japan was in the early 1990s, just as Japan's economy was sliding into a two-decade long funk. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made economic revival his top priority, with limited success.

Asked why there was such a long hiatus in trade missions to the world's third-largest economy, Pritzker said she was perplexed.

A renewed effort by both countries, with President Barack Obama pushing for TPP and faster growth in exports and Japan promising faster economic reforms, is creating new opportunities, she said.

"My feeling is that we need to take advantage of the kind of open door that's being created by Prime Minister Abe and President Obama," she said.

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