The US has accused Japan of blocking progress on a trade deal between 12 countries on the Pacific Rim by not allowing open access to its markets for agricultural products and motor vehicles.
In his most critical comments yet on Japan, Michael Froman, the top US trade official, said: “We can’t have one country feeling entitled to take off the table and exclude vast areas of market access while the other countries are all putting on the table more ambitious offers.”
The 12-country trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership is often called the economic backbone of President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia and is a centrepiece of the president’s trade agenda.
But negotiations have stalled since last December owing to the failure of the US and Japan to agree on provisions that would make it easier for US businesses to sell their products in Japan.
The two countries have been trying to bridge their differences before Mr Obama travels to Japan later this month, but Mr Froman’s comments indicate that they remain far apart.
Japan wants to maintain – or phase out slowly – tariffs on five agricultural products including rice, beef, and pork that it has declared “sacred”. The two countries also disagree on what is needed for the three big US carmakers to compete on a level playing field with Toyota, Nissan and others.
At a congressional hearing on Thursday, Mr Froman, the US trade representative, said he had told Japan that it was not living up to its commitment to help create a “high-standard, ambitious, comprehensive” agreement.
“This isn’t an issue of us needing to be more flexible. We’re being plenty creative in trying to come up with ways to ensure comprehensive market access to Japan that addresses political sensitivities as well,” he said.
“It’s time for Japan to step up to the plate. That’s not just our view it’s the view of all the TPP countries.”
While US companies have also attacked Canada for resisting tariff cuts in sensitive sectors, Mr Froman said Canada was waiting to see what Japan would do.
Asked if he expected to be able to complete the trade deal this year, he said: “Very much so. We’re focused on working around the clock to get this done as soon as possible.”
Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of a House of Representatives committee that handles trade, told Mr Froman that if a country was not willing to support an ambitious trade deal, then “we should complete TPP without that country and allow it to join later, if and when it is ready to make the necessary commitments”.
Since the last gathering of TPP ministers in Singapore in late February negotiators from the US and Japan have engaged in a series of meetings to try to break the deadlock.
Mr Obama and Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, also met on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in the Hague last week. According to Japanese reports, they set a goal at that meeting to try to secure a “broad accord” on the TPP by the time Mr Obama goes to Japan as part of an Asian tour this month.
Negotiations with Japan are not the only thing holding up the TPP. They also have been complicated by US domestic politics with senior Democrats blocking a bill to give Mr Obama so-called “fast track” negotiating authority, which is seen by some other TPP countries’ negotiators as crucial to finalising a deal.
Besides the US and Japan the TPP includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam.
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