Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said yesterday that he hoped for a quick conclusion to thorny free-trade negotiations with Japan, but suggested that time might be needed to ensure conclusion of a “satisfactory” pact.
Ministers from both nations took part in a five-hour session on Saturday that ended well into the evening without agreement on several substantial issues, Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb said.
He termed the talks exhausting, but said progress had been made.
Abbott told reporters that he hoped a conclusion was near for the negotiations, launched in 2007.
“I am optimistic about the free-trade negotiations, but they have been difficult negotiations,” Abbott said, according to a transcript provided by the Australian government.
“This government is determined to bring them to a swift and satisfactory conclusion,” he added.
Japanese Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who also took part in Saturday’s discussion, said there had been a “frank exchange of opinion” and he would be reporting on the progress to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Abbott, who is scheduled to meet Abe today, has set the free-trade deal with Japan as a top priority, promising to drop tariffs on manufactured imports, including Japanese cars, while pushing Tokyo to cut tariffs on agricultural products, especially beef.
However, he was cautious about the chances of clinching a deal during his visit, which is expected to last until tomorrow.
“I am hopeful, but not certain,” he said. “There are still some final matters to be resolved and, while we do want a swift conclusion, we want a satisfactory conclusion as well.”
Robb said talks would resume yesterday, but a Japanese Agriculture Ministry official said that had yet to be decided as of press time.
Japan is already Australia’s biggest beef export market, in volume and value, taking almost a third of all beef exported in 2012, according to Meat & Livestock Australia.
Failure by Japan and Australia to conclude a pact could ease US worries that a trade deal with Australia prior to an agreement on the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will give Australian exporters better access to Japan than their US counterparts.
The US urged Japan on Thursday to open up its farm and auto markets to overseas competition, with US Trade Representative Michael Froman saying Tokyo’s reluctance to lower trade barriers was holding up the TPP.
Acting Deputy US Trade Representative Wendy Cutler had already been scheduled to visit Tokyo as bilateral talks have accelerated ahead of a visit to Japan later this month by US President Barack Obama.
Obama, who had hoped to complete the TPP by the end of last year as a centerpiece of his push to expand the US’ presence in Asia, is expected to press for a deal with Abe during his visit.
Froman is to travel to Japan today for high-level talks.