TOKYO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - United States Trade Representative Michael Froman arrived in Japan earlier than expected on Wednesday, Japanese media said, for a last ditch push for a two-way deal seen as crucial to efforts to create one of the world's biggest trade pacts.
Froman, who had been expected to arrive in Tokyo with US President Barack Obama later in the day, was likely to meet Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari, the reports said.
Talks have been snagged largely on Japan's insistence on protecting politically powerful farm sectors such as beef. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament the talks were tough but Japan was trying to keep some tariffs.
Officials have played down the chances of a deal in time for Thursday's summit between Obama and Abe, but some experts said an 11th hour agreement could not be ruled out.
A central element of Obama's strategic shift towards Asia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would connect a dozen Asia-Pacific economies by eliminating trade barriers and harmonizing regulations in a pact covering two-fifths of the world economy and a third of all global trade.
After four years of talks and missed deadlines, negotiators from several TPP countries say they hope Thursday's summit will lay the groundwork for tough concessions, including a possible easing in Japan's protectionist stance on beef, sugar, dairy and wheat - a step that could breath life into the struggling TPP.
"Hopefully this will provide some clarity about the level of ambition we can expect in a hopefully successful TPP," New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said.
The White House had hoped to complete the deal last year but has faced disagreements over barriers such as Japanese import duties on agricultural products. Tokyo is fighting to maintain import tariffs in five agricultural categories: rice, wheat, dairy, sugar, and beef and pork products.
Washington, meanwhile, has sought ways to protect US carmakers from their Japanese rivals.
Experts are looking for signs of concessions, especially from Japan given its staunch protection of its beef, sugar, dairy and wheat industries. Under one optimistic scenario, the leaders could announce they expect concrete outcomes soon, perhaps next month, when TPP negotiators meet in Vietnam.
A senior US official said the summit would likely produce a statement giving a nudge for the negotiations to move to the next stage, a view shared by some industry groups. "I think it will be something artfully worded to say we have made significant progress and our negotiators continue to work on this with a goal of concluding," said James Fatheree, senior director for Japan and Korea at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington and president of the US-Japan Business Council.