Bilateral pact a possibility as U.S. seeks more trade with Japan, Trump’s commerce secretary says

With the United States having jumped off the Trans-Pacific Partnership bandwagon, its commerce chief on Tuesday offered some hope for establishing a free trade framework between just the U.S. and Japan.

“It’s a little bit too early to say just what forms things will take, but we’re certainly eager to increase our trade relationships with Japan and do so in the form of an agreement,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said after meeting with trade minister Hiroshige Seko in Tokyo.

The two met before the start of the high-level economic dialogue between Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Mike Pence, who is also in Japan.

The U.S. is reportedly open to discussing specifics of such a bilateral free trade agreement in the talks between Aso and Pence. But Japan remains reluctant, since the U.S. will likely press Tokyo to remove trade barriers — including protection on automotive and agriculture markets — more aggressively than what had been agreed upon under the TPP deal.

The administration of President Donald Trump has adamantly expressed its intention to reduce U.S. trade deficits with other major economies, including China and Japan.

Asked about the U.S. trade imbalance with Japan that came to $68.9 billion last year, Ross said, “We made good progress in terms of establishing overall issues and a frame of reference for continuing dialogue.”

The future of continued trade discussions between the two countries remain unclear, but Tokyo apparently prefers to deal mainly with Pence rather than Ross, according to a Bloomberg report that cited unidentified Japanese government sources.

The report said Ross appears to have taken a tough stance on Japan when it comes to trade issues.

Seko and Ross will meet again in June in Washington.

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