US President Donald Trump has focused attention on the countries which have the biggest trade surpluses with the United States and has pushed his preference for country-specific rather than multilateral deals. Photo: AFP

American and Japanese negotiators began their first round of trade talks on Monday. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer greeted the Tokyo team led by Japanese Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi at the start of two days of negotiations in Washington aimed at reaching a deal as quickly as possible.

After inflicting heavy tariffs on allies and rivals alike, US President Donald Trump’s trade team has completed a new North American trade pact with Canada and Mexico – the USMCA – and another with South Korea.

Washington also appears to be approaching the final stages of an agreement with China, while preparing for negotiations with Europe.

Trump has focused attention on the countries that have the biggest trade surpluses with the United States and has pushed his preference for country-specific rather than multilateral deals.

Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed in September to launch the talks between the world’s largest and third-largest economies, which represent about 30% of global output.

In Tokyo last week, Motegi predicted the talks would be “candid,” with the first round focusing on “making a decision on which areas we will discuss, chiefly in the field of goods.”

He said, “I will do my best to have thorough discussions so as to produce a good result in line with our national interest.”

The agreement between Trump and Abe said the negotiations initially would address “goods, as well as other key areas including services, that can produce early achievements,” while leaving access for American agriculture to Japan’s market for a later day.

In May, Trump ordered his administration to investigate the possibility of imposing tariffs of up to 25% on foreign autos and auto parts, a prospect that alarmed the industry and could have serious repercussions for Japan and Europe.

US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said last week he was seeking a “very quick agreement” with Japan on tariff cuts for agricultural goods.

“I hope we can come to a very quick agreement with Japan over maybe some temporary … provisions and hash out the many other issues that take longer in this area,” Perdue said.

However, the American side is likely to run into opposition from Japan on this issue, Jiji Press reported, citing unnamed government sources.

“There’s no way for us to conclude an agricultural deal first,” a senior Japanese official told Jiji.

If Japan does so, it may violate World Trade Organization rules related to free-trade agreements, the officials noted, according to the report.

Tokyo is expected to counter with demands that the United States scrap tariffs on Japanese industrial goods if Washington seeks an early opening of Japanese agricultural markets.

Tokyo aims to focus only on tariff matters, describing the talks as “TAG,” or trade agreement on goods.

However, Washington trade officials have spelled out 22 specific negotiation areas also including non-tariff barriers in Japan’s auto market and currency.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Saturday that any agreement would include a requirement to refrain from manipulating currencies to gain an advantage in international trade.

– with reporting by AFP

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