Froman: Asia-Pacific trade deal held up in fight over US agriculture access

A top trade official said Tuesday that a lack of progress in talks with Japan and Canada over more market access for U.S. agricultural products is holding up the completion of an Asia-Pacific trade deal.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said with a record amount — $145 billion — of agriculture exports having shipped out last year, opening up those markets will be a key part of any agreement and is a “high priority interest of ours” in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

“The fact that we don’t have a TPP agreement right now is, in fact, tied to the fact that we’re insisting on agricultural access both to Japan and to Canada, both of which we’ve not yet achieved in the negotiations,” he said at The Atlantic’s economy summit in Washington.

“We’re very much focused on achieving those before we can come back with an agreement that we feel comfortable selling to the American people, stakeholders and Congress.”

Froman pushed back against critiques that the Obama administration isn’t trying hard enough to sell its ambitious trade agenda, including trade promotion authority (TPA), to the American people or to Congress.

He argued that President Obama’s Cabinet has fanned out in support of expanding global trade with everyone from Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of State John Kerry hitting the road to rein in support.  

"I think we’re out there and engaged and this is a long game and we’re going to need to continue to make the case,” he said.

Froman said he has made dozens of trips to Capitol Hill to walk lawmakers through TPP and TTIP negotiations with the aim of “building the strongest bipartisan support."

“I think there is a robust debate going on, it’s a serious debate and we need to be very much involved in that and we need to be able to convince the American public of why these trade agreements are good for driving growth and creating jobs,” he said.  

The process of building support for the passage of a TPA bill, also known as fast-track authority, which would smooth any trade deals through Congress, is underway, Froman said. 

With the change of leadership at the Senate Finance Committee — Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) took over as chairman when Max Baucus became U.S. ambassador to China — it will probably take some time to build the bipartisan support desired by the White House.

But the lack of TPA is another missing element from the trade talks and iis "certainly an issue that is on the minds of all of our trade partners," Froman said.

During meetings last month in Singapore, Froman said he laid out to the 11 other nations involved in TPP exactly what is happening in Washington on the issue, including the debate and process and the view and approach of the White House.

"From our perspective we’re going to continue to work with Congress in building broad bipartisan support for trade promotion authority bill, at the same time we’re going to work to conclude TPP negotiations and make progress on TTIP talks," he said.

"As we do that it could show Congress and the American people the benefits of these trade agreements and it should help to move the whole agenda forward.”

He wouldn’t specify timing of when he thinks TPA will be completed. 

Overall, Froman said that the United States has to take the lead in promoting the expansion of trade to ensure its priorities are considered. 

“Globalization itself is here — we’re not going to be able to roll back the tide of globalization. The only question is whether through our trade agreements do we shape it or are we shaped by it, and does it reflect our interests and our values and our rules or the values and rules of others," he said.

Obama heads to the Asia-Pacific next month, where he will make a stop in Tokyo to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Trade is likely to be at the top of the agenda.

TPP remains important for Japan to achieve its economic objectives, Froman said.

“It’s not just a U.S.-Japan issue, all other countries in TPP are looking to Japan to open its market and view that as a critical part of moving forward."

Froman said there has been “some limited progress — the gaps still remain and we continue to be engaged to bridge those gaps.”