The time is "ripe" for Japan and the United States to reach a breakthrough in talks for a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the U.S. commerce secretary said on Tuesday, adding that the two were "a lot closer" to a deal than in recent months.
Penny Pritzker, who is in Japan with a trade mission of U.S. energy and medical companies, said both countries needed to be "bold and creative" to reach a deal, and a summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was possible if the two sides got closer to agreement.
The 12-nation pact is high on Abe's economic reform agenda and central to Obama's policy of expanding the U.S. presence in Asia. An agreement between Tokyo and Washington is crucial to securing the broader pact as other partners are reluctant to commit until they see how the two resolve their differences.
"The timing is now for us to sort this out," Pritzker told reporters after a speech in Tokyo.
"President Obama is coming to the region. It's an opportunity for our leaders to be together. This is really about recognizing the opportunity and the timing and the potential to move forward."
Obama has said he hoped to have a TPP deal by year-end, but many experts are skeptical the group's two biggest economies can make the necessary compromises.
Hopes for a resolution by the end of the year were dampened in September, when talks between the Obama administration and Japan hit a snag, with each side blaming the other for a stalemate over farm exports.
The United States insists that Japan lower barriers to agricultural imports, but Japan wants to protect sensitive products, including pork, beef, dairy and sugar.
The stalemate followed an April visit to Japan by Obama when the last-minute talks failed to reach agreement.
"I think you're a lot closer today to an agreement," said Pritzker, referring to the April visit. "I think given the political landscape in Japan and in the United States it seems that the timing is ripe and shaping up for us to get this done."
The top negotiators of nations involved in the TPP talks meet in Australia later in the week, ahead of ministerial discussion, and then further talks next month at an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing.
On a visit to Japan last week, Wendy Cutler, the acting deputy U.S. trade representative, said progress in the negotiations was encouraging, but difficult issues remained.
The 21-nation APEC grouping includes Canada, Mexico, Russia and the United States and accounts for about 40 percent of the world's population, 55 percent of global gross domestic product and 44 percent of world trade. (Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)