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Trade war

US presses for quick Japan trade deal as China talks stall

Washington plays phone diplomacy to keep pressure on Tokyo

Japanese fruit farmers, like this one in Yamanashi Prefecture, risk tougher competition from U.S. products if Japan lowers protective tariffs.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The U.S. pushed Japan for a quick agreement on a bilateral trade deal, with the lead negotiators speaking Friday by phone, according to sources close to the Japanese government.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan's economic and fiscal policy minister, reportedly confirmed a negotiating schedule aimed at striking a deal early on. The call was made immediately after the White House trade team met with Chinese counterparts in Washington on Thursday evening local time.

This push follows another phone call Monday evening between U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Trump reiterated a strong desire to ink a trade deal promptly, according to a Japanese government insider.

Lighthizer's move to speak with Motegi even while dealing with the Beijing delegation suggests that the White House seeks to leverage the results from the Japan trade talks to pressure China and the Europeans. The U.S. raised tariffs Friday on Chinese imports worth about $200 billion as the two sides continue struggling to reach a trade deal.

A quick deal would require that Tokyo and Washington agree on tariff reductions for automobiles and farm products. Motegi and Lighthizer apparently intend to continue ironing out the details ahead of Trump's twin visits to Japan at the end of this month and the next.

During a summit in Washington on April 26, Abe told Trump he would cooperate on a trade deal by the U.S. presidential election in fall 2020. However, the prime minister wishes to avoid striking a deal prior to Japan's Diet upper house elections this summer.

The two sides generally see eye to eye on limiting agricultural tariff reductions to levels agreed to for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. But the Japanese farm lobby remains deeply concerned that Tokyo will accept Washington's hardball demands. Japan's government is not interested in aggravating anxieties among domestic farmers before the upper house elections.

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