Tony Abbott’s push to resolve free trade talks with Japan appears on shaky ground, with the prime minister admitting he’s not certain of striking a deal during his visit to Tokyo.
Mr Abbott had hoped to finalise a free trade deal with Japan, Australia’s second-largest trading partner, as a matter of priority on his first official visit to north Asia.
He ambitiously pledged at the September election to end years of stalemate and strike free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China within 12 months.
But a resolution from fierce last-minute talks in Tokyo has eluded negotiators, who have struggled all week to gain ground on several final issues.
Mr Abbott said on Sunday he was “optimistic” a deal could be struck during his stay in Tokyo, but conceded the talks had been difficult.
“This government is determined to bring them to a swift and satisfactory conclusion,” he told reporters in Tokyo.
“I’m hopeful but not certain.”
Trade Minister Andrew Robb arrived in Tokyo ahead of the prime minister to try and break the impasse, but after hours with Japan’s agriculture minister could only say talks had entered an advanced but difficult stage.
Mr Abbott said negotiations had “meandered” under Labor after former prime minister John Howard initiated talks in 2007.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also blamed the opposition for neglecting the task, saying the federal government had “six lost years” to regain.
She dismissed suggestions Australia’s recent victory in the UN’s top court over Japan’s whaling program could have stalled talks, saying both nations would “move on”.
“We are hopeful of signing, or at least getting an official confirmation about the state of the Japan Australia free trade agreement,” she told ABC TV.
The deadlock could be on the agenda when Mr Abbott meets his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe on Sunday evening for a private dinner.
Mr Abbott’s visit will be formally acknowledged in a state ceremony on Monday, but the prime minister said he’d been “thrilled” at the welcome so far.
He said there was more than trade behind his visit to Japan, with an announcement on defence co-operation with the conservative Abe government expected in coming days.