Dow Jones
August 17, 2012

US Sen. Baucus to Discuss Trade Ties With Leaders of Japan, New Zealand

A top Democratic senator on trade issues embarks Friday on a 10-day mission to explore deepening U.S. ties across the Pacific, meeting with the leaders of Japan and New Zealand.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) will seek to improve access for U.S. exports to Japan, and will use his stopover in New Zealand to start laying the groundwork for congressional approval of a regional trade agreement that currently envisions grouping the U.S. with 10 other Pacific Rim countries.

"The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the next big U.S. trade initiative on the horizon," Sen. Baucus told Dow Jones Newswires, noting that the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly becoming the driver for economic growth.

Japan is exploring participating in the Trans-Pacific trade talks, but hasn't yet been invited to join negotiations that so far include the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Chile, Peru, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. Canada and Mexico were also recently invited into the talks.

No disclosure on the trade pact is expected when Sen. Baucus meets with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, according to a Senate Finance Committee aide. Instead, the senator will focus on further opening up Japan's market, especially for manufacturing and agricultural products.

In addition to meeting with senior Japanese officials, including Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and Trade Minister Yukido Edano, Sen. Baucus will also tour the local facility of Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA) that sells U.S.-made electric vehicles in Japan.

The major U.S. automakers are staunchly opposed to Japan joining the Trans-Pacific trade talks, complaining that non-tariff barriers have effectively kept the Japanese market closed to their cars. A group of 10 mostly Democratic senators last month sent a letter to President Barack Obama warning that inviting Japan to join the negotiations would hurt U.S. car makers and workers.

Sen. Baucus doesn't have a position yet on whether Japan should join the Trans-Pacific trade talks, seeing reason for both concern and opportunity about the possibility, the aide said.

In New Zealand, Sen. Baucus he will meet with Prime Minister John Key , Trade Minister Tim Groser and other political leaders to discuss the progress of regional trade negotiations.

Sen. Baucus hopes to use the New Zealand visit to educate himself and help build momentum for congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific trade deal, the aide said.

"It's approaching the end stage," the aide said. "It's something that Congress is going to be starting to focus on increasingly in the next year."

The U.S. will host the 14th round of trade talks next month in Virginia. While there were hopes to complete the talks this year, trade ministers from several of the countries involved have described that goal as unlikely.

The aide said the goal of negotiators at the Virginia round will likely to be nail down all the technical issues, leaving the more-difficult political decisions to be taken up after the November elections at a more-senior level