* Obama, Noda to meet April 30 at White House
* Next Trans-Pacific Partnership round in May in Dallas
* Current TPP members still hope for deal this year
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, April 18 (Reuters) - A senior U.S. lawmaker on Wednesday expressed strong doubt about Japan’s willingness to make significant reforms required under a proposed trade pact, while the top U.S. trade official said there was no timetable for a decision on Japan, Canada and Mexico joining the negotiations.
Representative Sander Levin said concerns about Japan’s possible entry in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks were more troublesome than questions still surrounding Mexico and Canada’s bid to join negotiations with nine other countries on the regional trade pact.
“I‘m not sure that TPP can be the arena for successfully confronting those issues,” Levin said, referring to longstanding barriers to Japan’s auto and insurance markets. “I think we need to be realistic.”
Levin, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, made the comments at an event organized by the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a U.S. business group, to build support for the trade pact, which supporters hope can be concluded this year.
The United States and other current TPP countries - Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei - say they want to negotiate a “21st Century” agreement that goes further than previous trade pacts in tearing down barriers to trade and raising international standards in areas like labor and environment.
Japan, Mexico and Canada in November expressed interest in joining the talks. Over the past five months, the current members have been discussing the feasibility of bringing the three countries into the negotiations without lowering ambitions for the agreement or allowing the talks to drag on and on.
MEETING WITH JAPAN‘S LEADER
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on April 30, about two weeks before the nine current TPP members convene in Dallas for the 12th round of negotiations on the proposed pact.
Noda faces opposition at home to the agreement and there are also concerns in the United States his government might not last long enough to finish the talks if Japan is let in.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, asked about the possibility that Noda might simply tell Obama that Japan was no longer interested in joining the TPP, said it would not be appropriate for him to speculate on that.
“We certainly hope their interest is going to be the same,” Kirk said, while repeating any new entrant must be prepared to meet the high goals already set for the pact.
Kirk said a decision on the three countries’ entry would be made collectively by the current TPP members and be driven by “substance” rather than any deadline.
The preference would be to decide on all three countries at once, but it is also possible that the decisions could be made “sequentially,” Kirk said.
In the meantime, negotiations among current TPP members will proceed full speed ahead, with the goal of finishing by year end, Kirk added.
House of Representatives Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, a Republican, said he believed Mexico was “in the best position” now to join the negotiations.
Both Dreier and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, said they supported all three countries joining the talks, but only if the applicants can convince current TPP members they will not bog down the talks or lower ambitions for the pact.
In the case of Canada, there are still questions about whether it is willing to open its agricultural market further than it has done under the North American Free Trade Agreement and address certain U.S. copyright concerns.
Mexico has pressed for an answer soon on its application, saying it should not be held back by lingering concerns over Japan and Canada. But it is also facing U.S. pressure to do more on intellectual property rights. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)