By Vicki Needham - 04/17/14 11:39 AM EDT
A group of House lawmakers is headed to the Asia-Pacific on Friday for a week of talks with top leaders in Japan, South Korea and China to discuss strengthening economic, trade and security ties.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) is leading the delegation of seven GOP lawmakers and one Democrat ahead of President Obama's scheduled four-nation tour set to begin next week that will take him through Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines on a similar mission.
"I look forward to a productive dialogue with Japanese, Korean, and Chinese leaders about the importance of free trade and free markets, as well as our shared interests in promoting stability in the region and confronting North Korean provocations."
The trip comes as negotiations continue over a massive 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal that hinges on the ability of the United States and Japan to reach an agreement on a slew of sensitive agricultural and auto market-access issues.
While Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aren't expected to negotiate the TPP, trade experts argue that the meetings next week could help accelerate the completion of the talks and lead to an agreement sometime this year.
Discussions have intensified in recent weeks among U.S. and Japanese trade officials ahead of the high-level meeting next week.
But there have been no expectations that the talks would have advanced to a point where Obama and Abe would announce a deal.
Critics of the TPP deal, including some House Democrats, say they don’t see any deal in sight and that the Asia-Pacific agreement will only hurt U.S. jobs and the broader economy.
Japanese news outlets reported Thursday that that Washington and Tokyo have agreed to leave in place tariffs on two of the so-called "sacred crops" of rice and wheat while allowing the U.S. to increase its rice imports.
"The Asia-Pacific region includes essential markets for U.S. agriculture products," Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) said.
Another positive sign is a scheduled meeting with the pact's chief negotiators, who are set to gather again from May 12–15 in Vietnam, a signal that the nations remain steadfast in their goal of delivering an agreement.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), who also will be on the trip, said the aim is to help build better relationships in the region.
"Strong and healthy relationships are vital to opening new markets for American-made products," Ryan said.
"And given the security challenges we face in Asia, I especially look forward to meeting with the troops on the front lines in Japan and South Korea.”
The delegation includes Reps. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), Kay Granger (R-Texas), Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), and Paul Cook (R-Calif.).