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Japan, US to focus on auto, farm market access in 1st trade talks

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, left, is seen with Japanese economic minister Toshimitsu Motegi. (Kyodo)

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) -- Japan and the United States will hold the first round of ministerial trade talks Thursday in Washington with the host likely to push Tokyo to further open its automobile and agriculture markets to reduce the chronic U.S. trade deficit.

The talks come as U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to impose additional tariffs of up to 25 percent on imported cars and parts. If he follows through, the new duties would significantly impact major car exporters such as Japan.

During the talks, which are expected to run through Friday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is likely to press Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan's economic revitalization minister, to reduce Japanese tariffs on agricultural imports such as beef and soybeans, and remove nontariff barriers on automobile imports, in an effort to extract concessions ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November.

Lighthizer is also expected to urge Motegi to start negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement.

Speaking at a Senate hearing late last month, Lighthizer said, "We have had a chronic trade deficit with Japan and we have had, in that case, what we consider to be unfair barriers to U.S. exports in a number of areas."

The USTR singled out beef exports as an area of concern.

The U.S. goods trade deficit with Japan totaled $68.85 billion in 2017, the third-largest among countries with which the United States generated a trade deficit, according to Commerce Department data.

In the July 26 hearing at the Appropriations Committee, Lighthizer reiterated his eagerness to start negotiations for a U.S.-Japan FTA, something Tokyo would like to avoid as its preference lies with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-member regional trade pact from which Trump withdrew the United States last year.

"We ought to be negotiating an FTA with Japan," he said, in reference to Trump preferring to handle trade issues bilaterally.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other Japanese officials have said they believe the TPP is the best trade deal for Tokyo and Washington.

If the United States rejoined the TPP, it could, for example, reduce Japan's 38.5 percent tariff on fresh and frozen beef to 9 percent over 16 years.

In line with an agreement between Abe and Trump during their summit in April in Florida, Motegi and Lighthizer are tasked with leading new consultations on trade and investment for a "free, fair and reciprocal" trade deal.

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