Japan, East Asian nations closer to pact on emergency rice reserve

by Siti Rahil

Kyodo News

SINGAPORE — Ten Southeast Asian nations plus Japan, China and South Korea are close to achieving their goal of establishing an emergency rice reserve to deal with sudden instability in supply and production.

Agricultural and forestry ministers from the 13 countries aim to sign the agreement when they meet in October in Cambodia, following more meetings among senior officials to thrash out the details.

It would be the first time for the region to have a permanent mechanism for an emergency rice reserve and stock based on cooperation among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the three Northeast Asian countries.

Officials said Japan earlier this year withdrew its opposition to a legally binding agreement for the ASEAN-Plus-Three Emergency Rice Reserve scheme, while other details have been ironed out by senior officials of the 13 governments.

The 13 countries have agreed in principle to earmark rice stock amounting to 787,000 tons for the emergency reserve, with pledges of 87,000 tons from ASEAN member countries, 250,000 from Japan, 300,000 from China and 150,000 from South Korea. The earmarked rice will be kept in their respective countries for use as emergency reserve for Southeast Asia.

They are also expected to contribute a smaller amount for an actual rice stockpile, which will be stored in a Southeast Asian location yet to be decided.

There is also a proposal from ASEAN members for the 13 countries to establish a $4 million endowment to cover the costs of running and maintaining the emergency rice reserve, out of which $1 million would be contributed by ASEAN as a group with Japan, China and South Korea each contributing $1 million, the officials said.

One of the sticking points for the emergency rice reserve plan is rule of origin concerning the source of the rice. Some ASEAN rice-growing countries like Thailand have insisted that the rice used for the emergency reserve should not come from outside East Asia.

Japan, however, would find it difficult to provide locally grown rice.

For the East Asia Emergency Rice Reserve Pilot Project, a Japan-initiated project in the region that started in 2004 and ended in February, Japan contributed rice it imported from such places as the United States.

Under the World Trade Organization rules on fair trade, Japan is obliged to import some foreign rice, so it would prefer to use this rice for Southeast Asia’s emergency rice reserve.

The EAERR Pilot Project helped disaster victims in Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar as well as malnourishment eradication programs in Cambodia and Indonesia.

ASEAN launched a food security reserve in 1979, but officials said the plan never really got off the ground and member countries normally turned to each other for help on a bilateral basis during crises.

Southeast Asia as a whole enjoys a surplus in food production, with only Singapore and Brunei relying on imports, but a jump in natural disasters and food price volatility has made ASEAN more anxious to unite on food security.