US, Japan trade officials say gaps remain on farm, auto market barriers but end in sight

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TOKYO — U.S. and Japanese trade officials failed to resolve differences on autos and farm exports that are hindering progress toward a Pacific Rim trade deal but say they believe agreement is within reach.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Japan's economy minister, Akira Amari, held talks that dragged into the pre-dawn hours but were unable to reach an accord on increased exports of U.S. rice to Japan and of Japanese autos and auto parts to the U.S.

"The gap was substantially narrowed but continued work is ultimately required to resolve these issues," Froman told reporters.

The talks between Japan and the U.S. are part of negotiations among 12 nations participating in the U.S.-led Trans Pacific Partnership, which eventually aims to create a free trade zone in the Asia-Pacific region.

Amari said the talks were in their final stages. However neither official gave details on the discussions, which have been kept largely secret.

In New York, Daniel Russell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations late Monday that a final 12-nation accord is within reach.

"We are within what I'd call grabbing distance of an agreement," Russell said in remarks carried on Japan's public broadcaster, NHK. "Every leader of the 12 countries is determined to close an agreement this year."

Froman traveled to Japan on Sunday for the talks after Amari said he believed the two could make progress on issues requiring Cabinet-level decisions, though he downplayed the likelihood of a deal before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits the U.S. next week.

Amari has said some of the remaining issues between Japan and the U.S. are likely to be resolved at 12-nation talks in June.

An agreement by U.S. lawmakers last week to propose legislation allowing President Barack Obama to negotiate trade accords for overall congressional review appears to be helping move things along.

At the outset of the TPP talks, Japan identified five categories of agricultural products as "sensitive," given its longstanding protections for politically powerful farm interests. They include beef and pork, wheat and barley, sugar, rice and dairy products.

Rice has proven an especially difficult area for compromise.

An aging population and changing tastes mean Japan is consuming less and less rice, and has a significant surplus of its own.

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