A meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week in Tokyo may not seal one of the world's biggest trade pacts, but it could give it a much-needed boost.
A central element of Obama's strategic shift towards Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would connect a dozen Asia-Pacific economies by eliminating trade barriers and harmonizing regulations in a pact covering two-fifths of the world economy and a third of all global trade.
After four years of talks and missed deadlines, negotiators from several TPP countries say they hope Thursday's summit will lay the groundwork for tough concessions, including a possible easing in Japan's protectionist stance on beef, sugar, dairy and wheat — a step that could breathe into the struggling TPP.
"Hopefully this will provide some clarity about the level of ambition we can expect in a hopefully successful TPP," New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said.
The White House had hoped to complete the deal last year but has faced disagreements over barriers such as Japanese import duties on agricultural products. Tokyo is fighting to maintain import tariffs in five agricultural categories: rice, wheat, dairy, sugar, and beef and pork products.
Washington, meanwhile, has sought ways to protect U.S. carmakers from their Japanese rivals.
Experts are looking for signs of concessions, especially from Japan given its staunch protection of its beef, sugar, dairy and wheat industries. Under one optimistic scenario, the leaders could announce they expect concrete outcomes soon, perhaps next month, when TPP negotiators meet in Vietnam.