Bipartisan group of senators urges major agreement with Japan

A bipartisan group of senators urged the top U.S. trade official to keep negotiations open on an Asia-Pacific trade deal until there is an agreement with Japan that provides greater market access to U.S. products.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) led a letter sent to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on Friday, coinciding with high-level Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks in Singapore over the weekend. It expresses concern that Japan has yet to make a comprehensive offer that would boost access for U.S. agricultural products in Japan.  

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"We believe that this situation could undermine the administration’s goal of significantly increasing market access for U.S. agricultural products in TPP party countries," the senators wrote. 

They argue that the TPP could support billions of dollars in exports and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Froman and Japanese Minister Akira Amari, who is heading up TPP negotiations for Tokyo, continued their discussions on Monday. So far there have not been any major breakthroughs, according to news reports.

The senators argue previous negotiations have led to better access for the U.S. agricultural sector and that the TPP should set a similar standard.

"By requesting special treatment for its agricultural sector in the TPP, Japan may upset the careful balance of concessions that the 11 economies involved in the negotiations have achieved," they wrote.  

"If Japan continues to insist on protecting certain agricultural products, other countries with sensitivities in the agricultural sector may make similar demands."

They say that the 12-nation TPP will facilitate additional trade relationships with Asia-Pacific countries and set an important precedent for future trade agreements.

"Most immediately, a positive outcome with Japan on sensitive agricultural products will buoy the prospects for reaching an acceptable agreement with the EU in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations," they wrote.

Top trade officials with the TPP nations met in Singapore over the weekend with the aim of narrowing their differences on a broad range of complex trade issues, from state-owned enterprises to intellectual property protections.

There has been some talk of trying to reach an agreement by the time President Obama begins a four-country swing through the Pacific Rim in April. 

But Froman, along with many business groups, have argued that there is no reason at this point to abandon the desire to forge a high-standard deal, regardless of how long it takes. 

"The deadline is not nearly as important as ending up with a comprehensive high-standard agreement," Tami Overby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for Asia, who is on the ground in Singapore, said in an email to The Hill on Monday.

"Now is the time to put up or shut up," she said. "There are still some hard things to accomplish but there is progress."