WASHINGTON, May 24, 2017 – U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is already meeting with his counterparts from Japan and other countries, letting them know that the U.S. is willing to talk about bilateral trade deals.

Shortly after signing a letter Thursday to tell Congress that the new NAFTA talks were set to begin, Lighthizer flew to Hanoi to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting of trade ministers. It was there that he sat down for separate talks with officials from Japan and more than a dozen other countries about the possibilities for bilateral trade deals.

“For the most part, I was there to show that we want to engage,” Lighthizer told reporters today after he and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue briefed House Agriculture Committee members on a wide range of trade issues. “It was very important that the United States show that we’re engaged … It’s important to tell them that (President Donald Trump) really wants to get involved and stay engaged in that area.”

It was a major blow to most of the U.S. agriculture sector when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a  12-nation trade pact that most U.S. farm groups were counting on to help boost exports.

The American Farm Bureau Federation had estimated that tariff cuts agreed to in the TPP would net farmers an extra $4.4 billion annually.

Increased access to Japan’s market was one of the biggest gains that farm groups had been counting on in TPP, but Lighthizer said it is still unclear how interested the Japanese are in a bilateral deal.

“Right now we have to see if Japan wants to negotiate or do they want to try something else,” Lighthizer said. “There are a bunch of thorny issues we have to work with. The elephant in the room is, 'Do we do a bilateral?' They have to work their way through their own politics.”

Japan should be first, but House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway said today that he wants to see trade deals with a lot more countries.

“The next step … would be starting these bilateral agreements with the 11 TPP countries,” Conaway said. “We’ve got an ag deal done with most all of those, obviously.”

And much of the ground work with those 11 countries - Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Peru, Mexico, Canada, New Zealand, Chile and Brunei – is already done and that should make the process easier, Lighthizer said.

“Clearly, we want to start with what was done,” he said. “A lot of good work was done in TPP. We want to use that.”