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Obama to Meet Japanese PM to Discuss TPP

The White House announced that President Obama will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe next week to discuss finding common ground regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Obama will meet with Abe on April 23 in Tokyo, and stay for two nights. Part of the agenda will be a discussion of further cooperation on security matters between the two nations, reinforcing Japan’s right to self-defense. The centerpiece of their talks, however, will be an attempt to resolve their differences over the stalled TPP negotiations.

The U.S and Japan have intensified their discussions over the TPP in an attempt to settle stubborn differences that have stymied the free trade agreement’s once brisk progress. Just recently, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman met with Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari and apparently were at least able to clarify the terms of the distance between them. Japan agreed to slice its tariffs in half, reducing the duty on Australian beef to less than 20 percent from 38.5% over the next eighteen years. Japan, though, still maintains its tariff on U.S. beef at 38.5%.

Also, on March 27, citing Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler met with Japanese Ambassador Hiroshi Oe in Washington, D.C. Last January, Froman met with Japanese Minister Takeo Mori in Switzerland with the purpose of designing a roadmap for remaining discussions. The U.S. has insisted that Japan move toward a tariff-free regime under the TPP, but Japan has resisted fully liberalizing its agricultural sector, nominating five product areas as “sacred,” which means effectively taken off the table for negotiation. Problematically, beef and rice are among the areas the U.S. has been equally insistent are, at the very least, open to the possibility of future revision.

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Many trade experts believe the ultimate settlement of the TPP squarely hinges upon the U.S. and Japan affecting a rapprochement on a series of contentious issues. Smaller nations have been exchanging concessions regarding intellectual property, regulatory reform, foreign investment and infrastructural improvements for additional access to both American and Japanese markets. However, that greater access is widely understood as contingent upon the prior opening of markets between the U.S. and Japan. And now a series of smaller arrangements between signatory nations embedded within the TPP have been imperiled by the contretemps between the two industrial leaders.

Some U.S. officials have attributed the impasse to Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s weakening enthusiasm for trade reform specially after Japan’s Parliament recently passed considerably weakened versions of the bold restructuring he previously championed. From the perspective of U.S. trade leaders, Abe capitulated when confronted with political pressure, caving into Japan’s powerful farm lobby, choosing to appease popular will rather than affect difficult changes.

Froman continues to express optimism regarding the possibility that the U.S. and Japan will soon broker a rapprochement, while also conceding that such an arrangement is crucial to the TPP negotiations as a whole. He said, “We are hopeful that Japan is able to come to the table prepared to achieve the kind of outcome that is expected as part of the TPP. Resolving the U.S.-Japan market access questions will be critical to the success of the TPP.”

Japanese trade authorities have pushed a counter-narrative that pins the slow crawl toward resolution on the U.S.’s legislative inertia and Obama’s diminished political capital. Beleaguered by scandals and locked in endless partisan dispute, Japanese authorities worry that Obama no longer has the power to confidently promise congressional approval of whatever promises he makes. This concern has only been exacerbated by intense disagreement among U.S. legislators over Obama’s executive trade promotion powers, colloquially dubbed “fast tracking authority,” or his power to expedite trade-related treaties through the process of congressional review.

Nevertheless, the timetable for the eventual conclusion of the TPP remains unclear, though many once expected that an agreement would be reached by the end of 2013. Froman was equivocal when addressing the issue: “We always said that the substance of an agreement or the negotiations should determine the timetable.”