The United States and Japan are discussing possible emergency protection for Japanese farmers in case a Pacific trade deal leads to a surge in U.S. imports, a senior Japanese official said.

Japan’s Deputy Chief Negotiator Hiroshi Oe said both Japan and the United States were navigating a difficult domestic situation, with farmers in both countries keeping a close watch on discussions, and it was not easy to narrow gaps.

“There was some progress but we are still far apart,” he told reporters after two days of meetings with U.S. officials on farm exports.

Talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation grouping that would stretch from Asia to Latin America, seek to remove tariffs and other barriers to trade, but agricultural goods are proving a particularly tricky issue.

Oe said measures allowing Japan to introduce safeguards if imports from the United States jumped sharply were a “big issue” at this week’s talks.

Under World Trade Organization rules, a country may restrict imports of a product temporarily, so-called safeguard actions, if its domestic industry is threatened by a surge in imports.

“There are various elements in the safeguard and they are linked to each other and it is a tough job to narrow gaps. There is a long way to go to reach an agreement,” Oe said, declining to go into specifics of the discussion.

The United States wants Japan to open its rice, beef and pork, dairy, and sugar markets. Japan has said it cannot completely eliminate tariffs on all those products, prompting calls from U.S. farm groups for the country to be dropped from the talks.

Oe brushed off the call and said U.S. negotiators had not raised the prospect of excluding Japan at the Washington meetings.

“Japanese farm groups are also stakeholders ... we are not negotiating with the stakeholders,” he said.

Asked if Japan intended to offer the same terms to other TPP countries as it agreed with the United States, Oe said it would depend on the tariff line but in general, “we try to apply the same formula.”

There had been reason to feel “desperate” at one point during the latest talks, he said, but both sides kept talking and talks ended more positively on Friday.

The next formal round of TPP negotiations is scheduled for July and the countries hope to agree a deal by the end of the year. (Reuters)