TOKYO – Closing two days of around the clock negotiations, U.S. officials said Friday that they reached a breakthrough with Japan to move forward a stalled regional trade pact even though gaps remain that could still upend a final agreement.
Japanese officials were more restrained in assessing the status of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. Chief negotiator Akira Amari said, "There was progress of course, but it's not something like a basic agreement."
The trade negotiations were a central issue in President Barack Obama's visit this week to Tokyo, including in his lengthy discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Senior U.S. officials said Obama and Abe discussed the trade deal extensively during a private sushi dinner Wednesday and ordered their teams to launch into immediate negotiations.
U.S. officials said the teams narrowed their differences on market access issues related to agriculture and automobiles, two key sectors that had deadlocked negotiations. While both countries kept key details of the negotiations private, a senior Obama adviser said there was particular progress on the parameters for tariffs on six products of concern to Japan: beef, pork, daily, sugar, rice and wheat.
"We believe that we have worked through very difficult issues and because of that work there is a clear path to resolve our bilateral issues with Japan and give momentum to the broader regional agreement," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with Obama Friday from Toyko to Seoul, South Korea.
Japanese officials were less upbeat, saying only that the two sides see a way forward and had agreed to keep talking.
"The two countries understand that each has sensitive issues and we took these into consideration, agreeing to accelerate efforts to reach an agreement," said government spokesman Yoshihide Suga.
Resolving differences between the U.S. and Japan is seen as key to moving forward the broader 12-nation pact. The agreement is a key component of Obama's efforts to assert U.S. influence in Asia in the face of China's ascendancy in the region.
U.S. and Japanese officials offered no timeline for reaching final agreement, though negotiators are expected to meet again in the coming weeks. A ministerial meeting is planned for May, Suga said.
Even if the two countries can resolve their differences, there are real doubts about whether Obama can rally political support for the agreement in Washington. Labor groups and lawmakers in Obama's own Democratic Party oppose the pact, arguing it could leave U.S. workers vulnerable to competition from countries with lower labor costs.
Congressional Democrats oppose granting Obama the authority to speed up approval of a final pact by making it harder for lawmakers to make changes.
The lack of a guarantee of approval on the U.S. side is making it harder for other countries involved in the talks to make tough political decisions.
Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said Friday he believed the talks would take much more time and would make little headway ahead of this year's congressional elections in the United States.
"President Obama doesn't have the political power to do much before the midterm elections in November," Aso told reporters.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Abe earlier this week, Obama said winning final approval for the trade agreement would mean "that we have to sometimes push our constituencies beyond their current comfort levels because ultimately it's going to deliver a greater good for all people."