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Crunch time for Japan over trade talks
Publication Date : 20-02-2013
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leaves for the US tomorrow on a visit that will likely see regional free trade and North Korea topping the agenda during talks with President Barack Obama.
In particular, Japan needs to make a quick decision on whether to take part in the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional free trade talks or risk missing out on the process altogether.
But Abe was reminded yesterday by anti-TPP elements within his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that they will oppose any attempt by him to use his upcoming meeting with Obama to express Japan's willingness to participate in the TPP.
They have listed several items that must be protected at all costs - from rice and beef to upholding Japan's strict emission standards for car exhaust fumes.
But business leaders say Tokyo must join the TPP talks if the Japanese economy is to rebound, a view shared by Abe.
The latest opinion poll by Jiji Press shows 58 per cent of voters support Japan's participation. Only 22 per cent oppose it.
Abe told the Upper House budget committee yesterday that he would protect Japan's interests. "I want to go into the talks as a representative to guard our national interest," he said.
But the Prime Minister is obliged to give due consideration to the farm sector, which forms a major part of his party's electoral support.
He particularly hopes to avoid antagonising Japanese farmers in the run-up to July's Upper House elections.
But even if Japan were to decide by next month to join the TPP talks, it would take the United States at least 90 days to agree to the entry of new members. This means that Japan would not join the TPP talks until September, the final scheduled round for this year.
The current 11 TPP members are said to be hoping to reach a final accord later this year, making the September round the last opportunity for Japan to take part.
During last December's general election, the LDP pledged not to join the TPP talks if Japan was expected to eliminate all tariffs without exceptions.
Abe is thus expected to use his talks with Obama to gauge whether Washington is open to exceptions. But there is no guarantee that Obama will not push Japan to open its markets further.
Time is clearly running out for Japan.
"Abe is expected to gauge whether the US will allow for tariff exceptions. But in order to protect those exceptions, it will be necessary for Japan to join the talks quickly and demonstrate our negotiating prowess," said the Mainichi Shimbun.
Trade aside, the two leaders are expected to discuss the security threats from North Korea and tougher sanctions on Pyongyang, which conducted its third nuclear test last week.
The talks, the first between the two leaders since Abe took office last Dec 26, have been billed by the Japanese leader himself as an extremely important opportunity to demonstrate to the world the strength of the Japan- US alliance, at a time when the regional security environment is worsening.
It will not be easy.
Abe has blamed the previous Democrat-led administration for allowing Japan-US security ties to weaken, because of the lack of progress in relocating the US Futenma Air Base to another site in Okinawa. But his administration has so far also failed to break the stalemate.
"Mr Abe should reflect public opinion and suggest to Mr Obama to review the Futenma plan, which goes against the wishes of the Okinawan people," the Okinawan Ryukyu Shimpo daily said.