* U.S. welcomes Japan interest but worried talks could bog
* Japan's auto and insurance barriers concern many lawmakers
* Current TPP countries hope to finish talks this year
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, March 15 The United States on Friday
cautiously welcomed Japan's request to join negotiations on a
U.S.-led Pacific free trade pact, emphasizing that Tokyo must
demonstrate it is able to tackle longstanding barriers to U.S.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on Friday that
Japan would formally seek to join talks on the Trans-Pacific
Partnership (TPP), a proposed free trade pact between the United
States and 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Bringing the world's third largest economy into the
negotiations would set the stage for a final agreement covering
nearly 40 percent of world's economic output, making it an even
more exciting prospect for U.S. exporters.
But there is also worry that the talks could bog them down
if Tokyo is unwilling to deal with U.S. concerns over barriers
to its auto, insurance and agricultural markets.
The Obama administration acknowledged those mixed feelings
in a statement welcoming Abe's "important announcement."
Acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis said the
United States had already been discussing "issues of concern
with respect to the automotive and insurance sectors and other
non-tariff measures" for over a year.
"While we continue to make progress in these consultations,
important work remains to be done," Marantis said, adding that
the administration would continue to consult with "Congress and
stakeholders as we proceed."
Negotiators hope to conclude the pact by the end of year,
and possibly as early as the annual meeting of leaders of the
Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in October.
Japan's participation, if approved by the current TPP
members, would make it more challenging to meet that timetable.
Even if those current members - the United States,
Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Singapore,
Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - sign off on Japan joining the
talks, the White House intends to give Congress 90 days notice
before formally beginning talks with Japan.
Tokyo's interest creates anxiety for Detroit-based U.S.
automakers, who fear losing more sales to Japanese imports.
Ford has been especially vocal in opposing Japan's
entry into the talks until Tokyo demonstrably opens its market
to more U.S. cars.
Representative Dave Camp, the chairman of the House of
Representatives Ways and Means Committee, said he remained
concerned that Japan had not "yet provided adequate assurances
that it is fully committed to resolving the outstanding barriers
to trade between the United States and Japan, especially as it
relates to our auto exports and insurance."
The Michigan Republican also said he did not want Japan's
interest in joining the talks to "unravel the significant
progress we have already made in the TPP negotiations or delay
the conclusion of TPP by the APEC Summit in October."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana
Democrat, said he welcomed Japan's interest and was hopeful the
United States could build "on the progress we recently made when
Japan began accepting more U.S. beef exports."
On Thursday, dozens of Democratic lawmakers expressed
concern about Japan's entry in the negotiations in a letter to
President Barack Obama.
Although Japan has no tariffs on U.S. autos, Ford and many
U.S. lawmakers contend the country maintains a web of regulatory
and other non-tariff barriers to keep out autos.
In their letter to Obama, the lawmakers urged the United
States keep its 2.5 percent tariff on Japanese autos and 25
percent tariff on Japanese trucks if Japan enters the TPP.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Finance
Committee, said Japan's interest was "welcome news" but
reinforced the need for the White House to work with Congress to
pass "trade promotion authority."
That legislation would allow Obama to submit the deal to
Congress for a vote without any amendments, thus assuring other
TPP countries that U.S. lawmakers will not change the final