NEW YORK -- The U.S. is scouting out favorable terrain for free trade agreements and sees the Philippines as possibly the next candidate, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said at a congressional hearing in Washington on Thursday.
"We are close to beginning negotiations," Lighthizer told senators, adding that a number of East Asian countries are interested in an FTA with the U.S. "One that we particularly liked is the Philippines. I think it would be a good first agreement." He noted that the country was in a good location and "there are a lot of advantages."
Lighthizer said the U.S. is also looking to Japan for an FTA, though he added that the Japanese government has so far not been receptive to the idea.
"Right now it is the Japanese position that they don't want to enter a new FTA agreement with the United States," Lighthizer said. "But they're willing to work through a variety of issues, and that's something that we would expect to do."
Japan has previously expressed its distaste for an FTA, preferring multilateral frameworks like the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated under the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Almost immediately after taking office in 2017, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP, announcing a strategy of "free, fair and reciprocal trade" through bilateral renegotiations of what he deemed to be unfair agreements. "It's the president's policy," Lighthizer said at Thursday's hearing. "When [Trump] decided he did not want to stay in the TPP [he said] that he would negotiate FTAs with other countries in that region as well as in other areas."
Japan and the other 10 remaining countries of the original TPP have since renegotiated an alternative deal known as the TPP-11.
Lighthizer said he expects to meet with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi within the next 30 days. He suggested that the session would address "a fairly aggressive agenda."
"We have had a chronic trade deficit with Japan," Lighthizer said at Thursday's hearing, though he described the U.S.-Japanese relationship as "very good." He suggested that he would bring up "unfair barriers" to U.S. exports, including beef, in his meeting with Motegi.