Obama’s Asia trip off to a slow start with failure to reach agreement on trade in Tokyo

U.S. and Japanese officials gave starkly different assessments Friday of key trade negotiations, as President Obama left Tokyo without a final agreement on a deal to improve access to Japanese markets for U.S. producers.

A senior Obama administration official said the two countries had achieved a “breakthrough” in their effort to help advance a broader, 12-nation free trade accord known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

As Obama flew from Tokyo to Seoul, the official told reporters on Air Force One that negotiators had set “parameters” for continued talks that could lead to an agreement.

But Akira Amari, a Japanese state minister in charge of the trade talks for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, said in Tokyo that several issues were still unresolved.

“We made significant progress, but our positions are still far apart,” Amari told reporters. “We’ll continue talks.”

During the first days of his Asia trip, President Obama told Japanese leaders that Washington is committed to their country’s defense, including islands disputed with China. (Reuters)

The White House views the TPP — whose 12 negotiating countries account for 40 percent of global gross domestic product — as a critical component of Obama’s strategy to shift U.S. foreign policy engagement toward the Asia-Pacific.

The failure of the two sides to strike at least the broad outlines of an agreement marked another foreign policy setback for an administration grappling with Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and Israel’s suspension of peace talks with the Palestinians. The president has said the Pacific free trade deal would help U.S. exports and create jobs by allowing better access to Japanese markets for U.S. automobiles, beef, poultry, dairy, rice, sugar and wheat.

Obama and Abe instructed their aides to try to reach an accord during Obama’s state visit, which marked his first stop on a week-long swing through four Asian nations. Negotiators held what senior Obama administration official Ben Rhodes described as “around-the-clock” talks over the past two days, and the issue dominated the bilateral meeting between the two leaders, administration officials said.

But the trade negotiations have faced intense opposition in both countries. Senate Democrats blocked Obama’s bid in Congress to gain “trade promotion authority,” which would have allowed him to negotiate a deal without lawmakers changing the terms later. Democrats have looked skeptically at the trade deal amid strong opposition from labor unions and environmental groups.

Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO, scoffed Friday at the White House’s contention that a breakthrough had been made.

“For one party to say they’ve made terrific progress afterward is a little like window dressing,” she said, adding that the inability to secure a deal is “good news because these talks are way off track.”

Lee added, “When you are trying to get a last-minute deal, and there’s a time pressure like this, it’s been our experience that important things get thrown under the bus. We’re relieved they did not attempt to create a phony deal.”

Rhodes insisted that the United States and Japan “have identified a path forward to deal with our bilateral issues in the negotiation” that will help in negotiations with other nations.

The deal under discussion would allow Japan to maintain some protections for the six politically sensitive market sectors, but the exact shape of the safeguards has yet to be determined, officials said. The senior administration official said that some modest tariff cuts could be phased in quickly, while “the deeper the cut in the tariff, the longer time it may take to get there.”

Some U.S. domestic manufacturers are critical of the concessions the Obama administration is entertaining, saying the trade deal would allow Japanese competitors to further penetrate the American market without providing the same level of access in return.

“This whole thing has morphed into a question of geopolitics. It’s no longer about trade,” said Stephen Biegun, vice president of international governmental affairs at Ford Motor Co.

Lori Wallach, a trade expert for Public Citizen, which opposes the TPP, said the talks in Tokyo amounted to a “do-or-die moment” for the administration.

“President Obama coming to your country would ostensibly be the moment that would happen, but it didn’t,” Wallach said. “And they needed to breathe life back into the broader process.”

After arriving in Seoul, Obama spent Friday afternoon paying homage to American military service and to the loss suffered by South Koreans in the sinking of the Sewol ferry on April 16.

Meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Obama first proposed holding a moment of silence to honor the men and women who lost their lives in this month’s accident. Then he offered Park an American flag as a sign of Americans’ sympathy for the loss of “so many young people, students who represented the vitality and the future of this nation.”

A few hours before, Obama laid a wreath in honor of those Americans who died in the Korean War at the National War Memorial adjacent to the Yongsan U.S. Army garrison.

Nakamura reported from Washington.

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