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International relations

Japan and US hurry trade talks with Trump calendar in mind

September agreement necessary to cut agricultural tariffs before presidential election

A dairy farm in central Washington state: Japanese tariffs on American agricultural goods are among the biggest sticking points for a bilateral trade deal.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Top Japanese and American negotiators will soon meet in Washington in what would be a last-minute attempt to compromise on beef and automobile exports if they were to conclude a trade deal by September.

Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan's minister in charge of the talks, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer hope to move the stalled negotiations forward over two days of sessions starting Wednesday.

The September timeline is important in the context of the political calendar. U.S. President Donald Trump is eager for a swift deal with tangible benefits to American farmers ahead of the U.S. presidential campaign coming up next year. 

Japan requires parliamentary approval to put any trade pact into effect. To submit the deal for approval to the Diet's extraordinary session beginning in October, Tokyo would need to sign a deal with Washington by September. That way, the trade agreement can take effect this year.

Missing this window will necessitate waiting until the regular Diet session next year, meaning that with all the necessary legislative procedures, the agreement cannot take effect until shortly before the November 2020 vote in the U.S.

Under the quickest scenario, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump would sign a trade agreement in late September. But for this to happen, Motegi and Lighthizer must find common ground on tariffs for beef, pork, dairy products and auto parts.

Many uncertainties persist. For one, it usually takes three months to half a year for countries to iron out the language of a trade deal. Not much time remains until the potential September agreement and the submission to the Diet in October.

The U.S. is also in talks with China and the European Union on trade deals, albeit with little progress. Trump recently announced a new round of tariffs on China to go into effect Sept. 1, leading China to suspend purchases of American agricultural products. Some of these tariffs have since been delayed to mid-December. Trump has also hinted at potential tariffs targeting the EU -- a step that would likely trigger retaliation by the bloc.

Abe hopes to set himself apart by deferring to Trump's concerns. He likely hopes that the American president's eagerness for a deal will also mean more concessions, such as an explicit promise not to impose quotas or additional tariffs on Japanese auto parts.

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