Access to Japan’s Markets Crucial in Trade Pact: Vilsack

A Pacific-rim trade agreement may have to proceed without Japan if the Asian nation doesn’t open its agricultural markets to imports, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

“It is incumbent upon us to have market access, and if the Japanese are unwilling and unable to provide that market access, then the other alternative is that you have a less comprehensive agreement in which the Japanese are not part,” Vilsack told reporters and editors at Bloomberg Government today in Washington. “We don’t want that. We think it’s really important for the benefit” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal “that Japan be part of this.”

Vilsack said the U.S. isn’t considering moving forward without Japan, and that it would be inappropriate to comment on the U.S. negotiating position in the talks because he’s not involved in the actual discussions.

Negotiators are at odds over Japan’s market restrictions for imports of agricultural goods including rice and beef, even after President Barack Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week during a visit to Asia. The two sides have identified a path forward to resolve some of those issues, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

Vilsack said it is encouraging both nations have identified a way that some of the differences could potentially be resolved, “with the emphasis on the word ’could’ and the emphasis on the word ’potentially.’” He said much work remains to be done in securing an agreement.

Congress Action

Vilsack said Congress could help U.S. negotiators by passing legislation known as trade-promotion authority, which lets lawmakers set some guidelines for trade deals while barring them from amending negotiated accords. A majority of Democrats oppose the legislation, saying they want more input to ensure that the Pacific deal doesn’t harm U.S. workers.

Without greater market access for U.S. agricultural goods, “it will be very difficult for this agreement -- and frankly it should be difficult for this agreement -- to get the approval of Congress,” Vilsack said.

He also said House Republican leaders need to show “political courage” to bring legislation to the floor that would revise U.S. immigration laws to give undocumented workers a legal pathway to remain in the U.S. Those additional workers would help boost farm production.

It’s “beyond understanding to me why this isn’t getting done,” Vilsack said. He said business, labor and faith-based groups with aligned interests should press for the changes.

Now that Congress has passed a new farm bill, Vilsack said his department will take a more active approach to rural economic development. Small businesses need more investment to support the economic expansion supurred in the past half-decade by high commodity prices, he said.

“Most of the rural areas of the country, you’re not looking at large agribusiness with major 500-1,000 employee kinds of business,” he said. “You’re looking at folks who have 10-15-20 people working in their plant.”

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