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Asia

Progress, but no finalized US-Japan trade deal during Obama visit

As President Barack Obama moves on to South Korea, the US and Japan have issued a joint statement saying that though a desired trade deal is not yet finalized, there has been progress.

Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari told reporters on Friday that though "obviously there has been progress," the terms of a desired bilateral trade deal were not yet finalized. The agreement would also serve as a key step en route to Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, to involve 12 countries in total.

"This time we can't say there's been a basic agreement," Amari told reporters after a second day of almost round-the-clock talks. "Overall, the gaps are steadily narrowing."

Finalizing an agreement during Obama's state visit was always considered a somewhat ambitious target, considering Washington's reservations on automobile sector tariffs and Japan's reticence with regards to agricultural produce such as beef and rice. The trade talks were set to continue at the ministerial level.

The Reuters news agency later quoted a high-ranking US source as saying that the negotiators had made a key breakthrough on the two sticking points, one that would also benefit broader talks on the TPP.

Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a joint statement shortly before the US president's departure. This document also confirmed that the countries' bilateral defense pact would cover the disputed Senkaku islands - also claimed by China, which calls the islands Diayou - in the event of them coming under attack. Obama had made this pledge on Thursday in Tokyo, but also said the US would take no firm stance on the sovereignty dispute itself. He said that Washington believed the dispute could be solved diplomatically.

Friday's joint statement reaffirmed interest in building and improving ties with China.

From Tokyo to Seoul

Obama also played a little football, or soccer as he would likely call it, with the famous humanoid robot Asimo at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo. One of carmaker Honda's flagship nonvehicular projects, Asimo also demonstrated a sprint and its ability to hop during the brief encounter.

This soccer connection fit well with the next leg of Obama's Asia tour, as he left Japan for the South Korean capital, Seoul - 12 years after the Asian neighbors co-hosted a World Cup.

Obama was scheduled to meet President Park Guen-hye in Seoul, at a difficult time for South Korea. In addition to a ferry disaster that is feared to have claimed 300 lives, relations with North Korea have been further frayed by the prospect of Obama's visit. Some reports out of both Seoul and Washington have suggested that another North Korean nuclear test could be in the works.

Also on Friday, an official at the South Korean Defense Ministry told the news agency AFP that one of its naval vessels had fired warning shots after two North Korean patrol boats crossed the countries' disputed maritime border. The defense official said the patrol boats - usually deployed to keep fishing fleets on the right side of the line - subsequently retreated after straying "one nautical mile" into the South's waters.

msh/mkg (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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