Tokyo Notes

Japan Edges Toward TPP Talks

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Tokyo Notes

Japan Edges Toward TPP Talks

But could excessive caution and pandering to farmers prevent it reaping a free trade harvest?

Driving along a nondescript stretch of road in Tochigi Prefecture yesterday, I was regularly greeted with flashing signs proudly announcing the heightened security measures in place for the APEC summit this week, even though the meet will take place in Yokohama—more than 150 kilometres away.

Japan is taking this event very seriously and apparently leaving nothing to chance. Fearing a terrorist attack or other headaches induced by right-wing protestors or the usual swarms of tree-huggers attracted to such talking shops, more than 20,000 police officers from forces across the nation have been mobilized for the event.

Rubbish bins have been removed from train stations and security guards are reportedly carrying out body searches on those in the vicinity of the venue. Thousands of posters (maybe more) have been pinned on walls and notice boards across the vast expanse of the Tokyo metropolitan area (which includes Yokohama) reassuring the public that the state won’t let anything untoward happen to the 18 heads of state and other dignitaries attending.

While the security of high-profile visitors is (as it should be) of the highest priority, one does sense that the measures are perhaps a little overzealous. Or, perhaps, as one of my companions the previous night in rural Tochigi gurned at me over a mug of shochu liquor—‘a waste of taxpayer money.’

The government’s tendency to err on the side of caution can also be seen in its divided stance over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral free trade agreement that will be a major talking point at the APEC meeting.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged to bring the nation into the initiative, which would remove Japan’s trade barriers with its four original members (Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore) and other nations in negotiations to join, including Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Vietnam and the blue fin tuna of the world economy—the United States.

But Tokyo has been notoriously slow on the uptake in liberalizing trade. Japan lags behind South Korea, which has boosted its trade (and other ties) with the United States and the European Union through the recent signing of FTAs. And with the yen continuing to strengthen against the US dollar and other major currencies, relaxing tariffs on exports could help businesses struggling to sell overseas.

Japan’s captains of industry also agree on this point. The chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), the country’s largest business lobby, urged the government Monday to join the accord by 2015. Hiromasa Yonekura told Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara that negotiating to join the TPP would boost Japan’s hand in FTA talks with China, South Korea and the EU.

But, as always, pitching their forks into the ground on the issue of free trade are the nation’s overprotected farmers (the import tariff on rice is close to 800 percent) and agricultural lobbies. As joining the TPP would mean the removal of tariffs on all agricultural products within 10 years, they worry for their livelihoods in what they say would become a market flooded with cheap imports.

Some lawmakers from Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan are also pulling against membership of the TPP with the strength of a prize bull. Their reasoning is selfish. For years, previous Liberal Democratic Party governments kept tariffs on imports high, giving them the backing of agricultural cooperatives and, in turn, a guarantee of the rural vote. This pandering to the farm lobby helped keep the LDP in power for decades and the more urbane DPJ is keen to boost its showing in the regions.

But to have its free trade cake and eat it, the government may have to find an imaginative means of supporting farmers. The government could once more learn from its South Korean neighbours, for example, and negotiate subsidies to farmers to help make up for the dismantling of an economic bulwark. While such talks could be as sticky, moving toward more open trade could produce a more bountiful crop for the nation as a whole.

Maehara, a city slicker, echoes this sentiment. ‘If we don’t seriously consider opening the nation up, we could soon lose our competitive edge,’ he said in a recent speech. ‘(By not joining the TPP) aren’t we sacrificing much of the 98.5 percent (of the economy that isn’t primary industry) for the 1.5 percent that is?’

An overcautious stance in the Yokohama talks, or a timid approach to the farmers, could result in Japanese business travelling a very mundane road in the coming years.