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'Breakthrough' in US-Japan TPP talks

SEOUL -- U.S. officials declared a “breakthrough” Friday after round-the-clock talks with Japan on a trade pact, despite failing to clinch a deal that would have raised hopes of a wider pan-Pacific agreement.

U.S. President Barack Obama left Tokyo empty-handed having arrived Wednesday hoping for demonstrable progress on levering open Japan's tightly guarded auto and agricultural sectors — key sticking points in setting up the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

That did not appear to happen, as Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emerged from talks on Thursday saying only that they had instructed their negotiators to keep trying, even as the U.S. leader demanded “bold steps” from Japan.

But a senior U.S. official told reporters aboard Air Force One that the intense discussions had gained new momentum after Obama and Abe dined at an exclusive sushi restaurant on Wednesday.

The official said there were still details to be worked out and negotiations would go on, but the week's talks — dubbed “sushi diplomacy” by the Japanese press — should be viewed as a “key milestone.”

“(Both sides) felt ... that on the basis of what we accomplished this week, we have a breakthrough.”

“This was a very important couple of days for TPP,” the official said, but did not specify the timeline for a final deal.

The official said the talks, which went late into the night after Obama and Abe met formally Thursday, yielded progress in specific sectors of the Japanese agricultural sector, regarding beef, pork, dairy, wheat, sugar and rice, which are known as “sanctuary products” because of their political sensitivity.

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