Japan says trade talks with US are close to deal

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that Tokyo and Washington are closing in on a deal to complete a major Asia-Latin America trade pact. 

Abe is optimistic that progress by U.S. and Japanese negotiators over the weekend could lead to a final bilateral agreement between the two nations during his upcoming meetings with President Obama in Washington. 

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“It would be good if I could reach an agreement during my meeting with the president, but when you climb a mountain, the last step is always the hardest,” Abe told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. 

Abe said he and Obama must play a leadership role to wrap a deal and “ultimately, what needs to happen is for both countries to make a political decision” to tackle difficult remaining issues. 

A U.S.-Japan bilateral agreement is a major step toward completing the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

“We think that an agreement between Japan and the U.S. is close, but we’re hoping that even more progress will be made,” Abe said. 

The United States and Japan have been working furiously to reach an agreement that would open up Tokyo’s agriculture and auto markets.

The efforts have stepped up ahead of Abe’s trip to the United States next week.

The talks got a boost last week, when lawmakers introduced “fast-track” legislation. Japanese trade officials have said that, without fast track, or trade promotion authority (TPA), there will be no TPP deal. 

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman flew to Tokyo on Saturday to lend his support to the effort. On Sunday, he said,  “We had a good, initial set of discussions tonight of the outstanding issues, and we laid out a path forward tomorrow for continuing those discussions.” 

Akira Amari, Japan’s chief negotiator, said Monday before talks continued that “the negotiations are now in the most crucial stage.”

Abe's trip, which runs from April 26 to May 3, includes an address to a joint session of Congress on April 29 and a state dinner at the White House. 

The president has argued that the TPP will boost the U.S. economy and strengthen ties with a major Pacific ally. 

Abe has made similar statements, arguing that the TPP is a top priority in his agenda to kick-start the long-stalled Japanese economy, the world's third largest.

“The jobs market is tight, and wages are rising the most in 15 years,” he said.

Besides the United States and Japan, the talks include Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.