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Japan joins Pacific trade talks at last
Publication Date : 16-03-2013
PM Abe joins the Trans Pacific trade talks despite strong objections by farmers and some party members
Japan has finally decided to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, just half a year before negotiations for the free trade pact are due to end, despite strong objections by farmers and from within the ruling party.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a press conference in the Japanese capital yesterday: "This is our last chance to join the TPP. Japan must be in the centre of the Asia-Pacific century."
As the world's third-largest economy, he said, Japan will surely be able to play an active role in determining the rules for a new regional economic framework.
Eleven countries, including Singapore, are involved in the three-year-old negotiations. Acknowledging the difficulty of overturning rules already decided by these existing TPP members, Abe said: "We do not have much time left. We have to enter the negotiations as soon as possible."
Japan, he stressed, must be a part of the huge Pacific free trade zone that the TPP seeks to create.
The last-minute decision came amid deep concerns that the TPP will unleash a flood of cheap imports into Japan, weakening the country's heavily protected farm sector in particular.
For instance, imported rice is currently subjected to a 778 per cent tariff. But Japanese industries favour joining the TPP as it will open up more export markets for their products and sharpen their competitive edge.
The government estimates that joining the TPP will give Japan's gross domestic product a 3.2 trillion yen (US$33 billion) lift.
At the same time, it could lead to a 3 trillion yen drop in Japan's agricultural output, assuming the complete elimination of tariffs and no countermeasures by the government, a situation that Abe said was unlikely to happen.
He sought to dispel the concerns of Japanese farmers. "I promise we will do everything we can to protect Japan's agriculture and food," he said.
The Liberal Democratic Party's lawmakers from largely rural constituencies oppose the TPP as it threatens the livelihoods of farmers, who are key supporters of the ruling party.
The party urged Abe to give the utmost priority to ensuring that Japan does not have to open up its markets to key farm products, especially rice, wheat, beef, dairy products and sugar.
It said Japan should pull out of the talks if those products cannot be protected. But experts say it would be difficult for Japan to leave the negotiations once it joins in.
Japan also cannot abandon the TPP without seriously damaging its alliance with the United States.
Singapore, one of six TPP members that have already agreed to Japan's participation, warmly welcomed Abe's announcement. "Japan has long played a crucial role in the development of the Asia-Pacific and thus in maintaining its stability. Japan's participation will give the TPP even greater strategic significance," said a statement issued jointly by Singapore's foreign and trade ministries.
With existing TPP members racing to reach a deal by the end of the year, if not by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali in October, time is not on Japan's side.
As the US will take at least 90 days to approve Japan's participation, Japan will miss the next round of TPP talks in May. But TPP members are likely to agree to add a round in July to accommodate Japan, before heading into the final round scheduled for September.