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International relations

Election seasons shape timeline for Japan-US trade talks

Abe wants to stall until summer vote while Trump seeks deal before presidential race

U.S. beef and pork are losing market share in Japan to Australian and European products.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. and Japan are carefully weighing their political calendars in setting the pace of trade negotiations, with the White House seeking a deal before the 2020 presidential election and Tokyo trying to stall until after the parliamentary election this summer.

Japanese Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are meeting here Thursday. Finance Minister Taro Aso is also holding currency-focused talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet Friday in Washington, after which the negotiations are expected to pick up pace. The two leaders will decide on the general direction of the talks at another summit scheduled for late June. 

While Japan understands Trump's desire to strike a deal before the presidential election in the fall of next year, it also wants to avoid making concessions that would upset farmers before this summer's upper house election. Those political calculations are expected to figure heavily as the talks move forward. 

Lighthizer told Motegi at April 15-16 ministerial-level talks that the White House wants to quickly resolve America's unfavorable trade situation in agriculture. U.S. beef and pork sellers are starting to lose Japanese market share to Australian and European Union competitors that have benefited from lower tariffs since the 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement took effect in December and February.

Ranching is a core sector in Trump's political base. He seeks to wrap up tariff talks with Japan to promote his administration's successes before the 2020 presidential election here.

With two more summits planned for late May and late June, the American and Japanese leaders will meet in three consecutive months. Tokyo sees the June meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka as the crucial chance to set the direction of the talks.

The leaders are expected to determine the scope of negotiations -- including automobiles, agriculture and digital trade -- as well as an anticipated period by which a deal should be settled. Japan's offer of a quick agreement was made with the Trump administration's aims in mind. Terms could be reached within the year.

But Tokyo intends to steer clear of any agreement on agriculture or automobiles before the upper house election in summer. Negotiations could sway the election given concern among agriculture groups, which support the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, about U.S. demands to open up the Japanese market.

"We need to be mindful that [negotiations] will also have a significant impact on the upper house election," said Hiroshi Moriyama, the LDP's Diet affairs chief, who is close to the agriculture sector.

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