Japan's leader refuses to set timetable for Asia-Pacific deal

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday that no timetable should be attached to completion of a far-reaching Asia-Pacific trade agreement.

Abe argued that the negotiators should take their time even with President Obama scheduled to make a four-country trip through the Pacific Rim, including a stop in Tokyo, in April.

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“Although an early deal would serve our country’s interests, setting a time limit in advance could tie our own hands and allow the negotiating partner to take advantage of us,” Abe said, according to news reports.

The comments align Abe with his U.S. counterparts, who are arguing that Trans-Pacific Partnership's (TPP) content is more important than the timing and needs to remain the focus if they want to forge a high-standard agreement.

The remarks counter those made Wednesday by Kenichiro Sasae, Japanese ambassador to the U.S., who said that Japan is aiming to accelerate talks with the United States before Obama's trip.

Sasae suggested that the best-case scenario is to make major progress before Obama arrives in Tokyo.

The United States and Japan are holding bilateral parallel talks, which will be included in the TPP deal.

The two nations remained deadlocked after four days of high-level TPP discussions, which ended Tuesday, in Singapore. 

While Abe has placed great economic importance on inking the trade deal — it's part of the third arrow of his plan to revive the Japanese economy — he also vowed again to protect five key agricultural categories, including rice and sugar.

“We’ve expressed our resolve with respect to the five farm product categories. We will aim for the best way to serve Japan’s national interests,” he said Thursday. 

The insistence on protecting those goods is just one of the sticking points in the discussions. Meanwhile, the U.S. is looking for greater market access for its beef and cars.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said that, despite talk that some of countries involved in the talks wanted to continue without Japan, the aim is to complete the agreement with all 12 nations involved.

Still, while Japan and the U.S. try to work out their differences, the 10 other nations also have struggled to close gaps on major issues from market access to labor, environmental, intellectual property and state-owned enterprises.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan majority of Congress, as well as U.S. automakers, are pressing for trade officials to add currency manipulation provisions into the TPP.

American Automotive Policy Council President Matt Blunt said his group is "deeply disappointed that despite calls from industry groups, leading economists and bipartisan majorities of the U.S. Congress for strong and enforceable currency disciplines in TPP, the Obama administration has yet to offer text to even begin to address currency manipulation in the TPP negotiations."

"Without currency rules in trade agreements, countries could manipulate their currencies to gain an unfair competitive advantage over other trading partners and undermine the expected benefits of TPP," he said.

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Wednesday that the Obama administration's trade agenda won't move on Capitol Hill until the currency issue is addressed. 

Besides the United States and Japan, the other countries are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.