This week's meeting between US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could give impetus to Pacific trade negotiations but would not seal a deal, a senior US administration official said.
Talks between the United States and Japan seen as vital to a broader regional trade pact had narrowed to a few critical areas and would resume tomorrow, officials of both countries said, as negotiators hustle to prepare for Thursday's summit.
Breaking a US-Japan deadlock over access to Japan's farm and auto markets is seen as key to finalising the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation trade bloc that would stretch from Asia to Latin America.
The TPP is central to Obama's policy of expanding America's presence in Asia and Abe, for his part, has touted the TPP as a main element of his strategy to reform the world's third-largest economy and generate sustainable growth.
When the leaders meet, they are likely to review progress so far on the trade talks and give some impetus to negotiators to move on to the next stage. But a US official said they would not get into the details of tariffs on sensitive products such as beef, pork, rice and sugar, and would not reach an agreement.
US Trade Representative Michael Froman and Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari wound up a 20-hour negotiating session on Friday with major gaps still on display.
"We still have big differences," Amari said in Washington before he left for Tokyo, although he said "the gaps are getting smaller".
The US side said: "We continue to make progress, and we are now faced with a reasonable number of outstanding issues. These issues are important to both sides and considerable differences remain."
Sticking points from the US perspective revolve in equal measure around access to Japan's markets for agricultural products and peeling away layers of Japanese regulations that serve to block automotive imports.
Discussions will continue in the weeks ahead, but there is no particular deadline for concluding the talks, the official added. Momentum behind the talks need not stall because negotiators had not struck a deal ahead of Obama's visit to Japan, he said.
Some experts say US negotiators are at a disadvantage because the White House does not have authority to fast-track agreements through Congress, given opposition by senior Democrats to a bill laying the groundwork for a yes-or-no vote by lawmakers ahead of elections in November.
TPP negotiators are due to reconvene in Vietnam next ,month and trade ministers will meet at an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum event in China the same month.
The senior US official said that even when a final agreement was reached, it would take many months of work to translate that into a legal document that could be submitted to lawmakers for approval.
Meeting Anwar is not on U.S. President's agenda
US President Barack Obama does not plan to see Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim when he is in Kuala Lumpur this week, though US officials did not rule out a lower-level meeting.
Obama will become the first sitting US president to visit Malaysia in nearly half a century when he touches down in the country next Saturday.
Washington has expressed disquiet about what it says are politically motivated charges to keep the veteran opposition leader out of Malaysian politics.
In March, the Malaysian Court of Appeals overturned Anwar's 2012 acquittal on sodomy charges dating from a bitter power struggle with then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in the 1990s. Anwar, 66, was sentenced to five years in jail but is free pending an appeal to the Federal Court.
Asked whether Obama would make time during his schedule in Malaysia, which includes a dinner and talks with Prime Minister Najib Razak, to meet Anwar, National Security advisor Susan Rice indicated he wouldn't. "He is not likely to have that meeting - there may be other engagements at other levels," Rice said. Obama will meet young leaders from the region and civil society representatives.