U.S. farmers are in an uproar over signs that Japan will maintain some barriers to agricultural exports under a Pacific trade pact, which threatens to unravel a deal that is central to U.S. efforts to retain economic and security influence in the region.
Four years into Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, U.S. negotiators are fighting to balance the goal of total tariff elimination with the sensitivities of Japanese and American farmers and the needs of other trading partners.
Central to President Barack Obama's strategic shift toward Asia, the TPP would connect a dozen economies by cutting trade barriers and harmonizing standards in a deal covering two-fifths of the world economy and a third of global trade.
After an April summit between Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a compromise seems likely to allow Tokyo to keep some protection for goods like beef, sugar, dairy or wheat, judging by a change intone from U.S. officials in recent weeks to talk about tariff elimination "to the maximum extent possible.''
This contrasts with the original goal, upsetting American farmers. Dairy farmers have threatened to withhold their support for the deal if the markets are not opened in a meaningful way, and other farm groups have called for Japan to be excluded from the trade deal.
"We are not going to allow a bad deal with Japan to go forward,'' said Nick Giordano,vice president of the National Pork Producers Council, which represents pig farmers. "It's going to invite other countries in the TPP to scale back what they are willing to give the United States.''
Past U.S.trade deals have also fallen short of total tariff elimination. But the extent of the concessions is crucial, especially in winning support of the influential U.S. farm lobby, which could scupper TPP in Congress.
A deal that expands U.S. farm exports and is backed by farmers could help Obama win over skeptical Democratic lawmakers who associate trade deals with lost jobs. Farm lobby support is also crucial for Republicans, who are generally pro-trade but would likely reject a deal opposed by farmers.
A deal with broad agricultural exemptions would be ``dead on arrival in the House of Representatives,'' said Republican Aaron Schock, a member of the congressional trade panel which has called a hearing on agriculture trade for Wednesday. He noted that 60 seats in the House represent agriculture-dominated districts.
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