Japan, U.S. launch TPP-linked talks on autos, nontariff barriers

Japan and the United States launched bilateral trade negotiations Wednesday on autos and nontariff barriers in parallel with the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks that Japan joined last month.

On the first day of the three-day talks in Tokyo, the two largest economies involved in the TPP negotiations discussed auto trade and insurance-sector issues among the nine nontariff measures on the table.

They plan to hold expert-level discussions on other nontariff measures Thursday and another session for leading negotiators on the final day, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The Japanese delegates are led by Takeo Mori, ambassador for economic diplomacy. The U.S. delegation, headed by Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler, also includes officials of the departments of State and Commerce.

Saying she brought a "strong team" with her, Cutler told officials at the negotiating table at the outset of the session, "We have a lot of work to do, we need to do it quickly, and we need to discuss constructively."

"We look forward to having fruitful discussions," Mori said.

The first round of the bilateral, parallel negotiations kicked off after Japan became the 12th member of the TPP talks on July 23 upon the completion of U.S. domestic procedures to start trade talks with Japan. Japan entered the TPP talks near the end of the 18th round, held in Malaysia.

The bilateral dialogue was agreed after a strong request from the United States, which has been seeking the further opening up of the Japanese market through the elimination of nontariff barriers such as different auto safety standards and inspection regulations.

In a related move, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced Tuesday its ambassador Michael Froman will visit Japan on Aug. 19 for talks with Cabinet members on the key sectors in the TPP negotiations.

Froman and Japanese officials are expected to discuss TPP sectors of interest to the United States such as automobiles, insurance and agricultural products before he attends ministerial talks on the U.S.-led pact in Brunei on Aug. 22 and 23.

The latest bilateral talks do not cover tariff elimination related to vehicles or farm products, which Japan is keen to discuss in the TPP negotiations.

Informed sources have said the United States has suggested it is not holding bilateral tariff negotiations with Japan during the Brunei round as it needs to complete its assessment of how tariff elimination will affect the U.S. economy.

The two countries announced the parallel dialogue in April, saying they had completed bilateral preparatory talks for Japan's participation in the TPP talks and agreed that U.S. tariffs on Japanese automobiles would be phased out using the longest staging period for any product in the TPP talks.

The agreement was seen as a concession by Japan in order to protect its agricultural sector in exchange, sparking concern that the country could be forced to make further concessions.

In an apparent response to U.S. concern that its insurers will not be able to compete on an equal footing with Japan Post Insurance Co., a unit of the state-owned Japan Post group, Tokyo said in April it does not intend to authorize the sale of new medical insurance products by the unit for several years.

In addition, the Japan Post Group announced last month it will expand its business collaboration with American Family Life Assurance Co. (Aflac) to sharply increase sales outlets handling the U.S. insurer's cancer policies in Japan and jointly develop cancer insurance products, another move that is seen as easing U.S. concerns.