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US urged to endorse Japan bid to enter trade pact

Matthew Pennington, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Japan's ambassador urged Washington on Friday to endorse Tokyo's bid to enter a U.S.-backed Pacific trade pact, pushing back against the concerns of American automakers, but not dismissing them.

Last week, Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, announced Tokyo's desire to enter negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, in what could be a strategic boost for the Obama administration's expanded engagement in Asia. But U.S. automakers in particular are worried about access to Japan's market.

Ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae told the Brookings Institution think tank that Japan has shifted from localized production of vehicles and that its automakers employ 388,000 people in the U.S.

He said that while there are few auto imports from the U.S., cars are coming in from Europe.

Japan's auto tariffs are almost zero and "generally the market is open," he said, but added: "We have to address remaining barriers, if there are any."

At a congressional hearing this week, a Democratic senator complained that Japan exports 120 automobiles to the U.S. for every American vehicle sold to Japan and that an undervalued yen is giving it an unfair advantage to Japanese producers.

Sasae stressed the strategic importance of the trade pact for Washington's strategic rebalance to the region and said Japan's participation in TPP would help revive both nations' economies. Without Japan, the world's third-largest economy, he said, "there's no sustainable free trade in the Asia-Pacific."

Japan's GDP exceeds the combined total of the 10 other nations negotiating the pact with the United States, aimed at reducing duties on a wide range of goods and services and ease regulatory and other nontariff barriers to trade. Other participants include Australia, Canada, Mexico and Vietnam.

China, the world's second-largest economy, is not taking part.

Sasae said Abe, who took power in December vowing to boost growth, had spent a great deal of political capital in seeking TPP entry. The pact is opposed by Japan's heavily subsidized farmers, who are influential in Abe's own party.

He said Japan is sensitive to the concerns of U.S. industry, and he urged the U.S. to be sensitive to Japanese agriculture, in pursuit of the "higher goal" of building regional free trade.

Senators at this week's hearing, however, sought assurances from the Obama administration Japan would not get special treatment.