TOKYO (Kyodo) - Japan has begun considering bilateral free trade agreements with both the United States and the European Union, with specific plans, trade ministry officials said Tuesday.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) plans to launch studies this fall by the private sector of Japan and the United States for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the officials said.
METI hopes to elevate the studies to an intergovernmental level in fall next year, they said.
If the private-sector and intergovernmental studies proceed smoothly, Japan and the United States are expected to start FTA negotiations ''around the summer of 2009 after the launch of a new U.S. administration,'' a senior METI official said.
The ministry also plans to sound out the possibility of launching private-sector studies on a Japan-EU FTA when their leaders meet for an annual summit on June 5 in Berlin.
The ministry is eager to kick off the studies by the end of the year.
It was the first time the Japanese government has revealed studying FTAs with the United States and the European Union with specific plans, such as certain time frames. The combined size of the economy between Japan and the European Union and that between Japan and the United States covers some 40 percent of the world's gross domestic product.
Despite the plans, Japan could be forced to slow down its attempt to create two large trading areas due to anticipated opposition from agricultural lobbies.
The lobbies, along with ruling party lawmakers who have vested interests in the agricultural sector, are against opening Japan's farm market to foreign farm produce. The United States and the European Union are major exporters of farm products.
According to the officials, METI is set to consult the United States with a plan for a bilateral FTA after the House of Councilors election in July.
In teaming up the Foreign Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, METI is considering using a Japan-U.S. vice ministerial economic dialogue to discuss the plan.
In a preparatory move to seek a bilateral FTA, METI has already begun exchanging information with the U.S. Commerce Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative on trade pacts Japan and the United States have formed with third countries.
METI has entered talks with the Japanese business community to choose members for the envisaged private-sector studies with the United States on a bilateral FTA.