More than a year after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared to the global community his interest in Japan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord, the nation remains unconvinced of the merits and major political parties are taking equivocal stances, turning it into a major election issue.
The Liberal Democratic Party, which opinion polls say will triumph in Sunday’s Lower House election, promises in its platform to oppose entering the TPP negotiations if abolishing tariffs “without sanctuary” — or eliminating levies on all products — is a precondition.
Analysts say the pledge is carefully worded so as to win the votes of the many opponents of the regional free-trade initiative, especially farmers, who fear that an influx of bargain-basement produce from overseas would put them out of business, while at the same time giving the LDP room to shift toward a more pro-TPP position once in office if this precondition is scrapped.
Noda rapped LDP President Shinzo Abe for his lack of clarity on the TPP in a debate Nov. 30, saying “I can’t tell whether (the LDP) will press the accelerator or put the brakes (on participating in the negotiations).”
But Noda’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan, for its part, appears to be backpedaling on its initial push to join the multiparty negotiations being held to hammer out a framework for the TPP.
The DPJ promoted Japan’s entry more clearly at first, with Noda conveying his intention to speed up preliminary talks with Washington over the issue to President Barack Obama on the sidelines of international meetings in Cambodia last month.
In a campaign pledge, the DPJ stated that it will continue its efforts to join the TPP talks while simultaneously pursuing a trilateral free-trade agreement between Japan, China and South Korea, as well as the planned Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which comprises 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
But given that some DPJ lawmakers have voiced concerns about the TPP, the party later qualified its stance, saying “the (DPJ) government would make a judgment” on the matter if returned to office and stressing that no final decision has been made yet.
Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), which has been vying with the DPJ for second place in recent opinion polls, watered down its support for joining the TPP discussions following its merger with former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s party.
With Ishihara, a vehement TPP opponent, now at the helm of Nippon Ishin, the pro-TPP view of party founder and deputy leader Toru Hashimoto has been significantly eased.
“The three parties’ stances on the TPP are basically the same,” said Junichi Sugawara, a trade policy expert at Mizuho Research Institute, referring to the DPJ, the LDP and Nippon Ishin.
Others are highly critical of the major parties’ campaign stances on the TPP.
“I think it is wrong to make ambiguous pledges to conceal contradictions that exist within the parties,” said Masaaki Sakaguchi, secretary general of the National Coalition of Workers, Farmers and Consumers for Safe Food and Health.
Sakaguchi, whose organization comprising various trade unions opposes entering the TPP, said he is worried the accord would both devastate the domestic farming sector and also see Japanese regulations replaced by U.S. regulations in a number of areas, including food safety.
But minor parties contesting the Lower House vote have taken a different tack and adopted clear policies on the TPP, whether in favor of or against the idea.
The Social Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party and New Party Daichi are fiercely and explicitly resistant to joining an FTA that aims to eliminate all tariffs in principle.
In direct contradiction, Your Party has described Japan’s entry as a “step that would energize the country’s future.”
Mizuho Research’s Sugawara said the ability of whichever government that emerges after Sunday’s ballot to move the contentious issue forward will depend for the most part on how strong its political footing is.
The election follows a series of free-trade milestones reached last month, including a declaration that Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul will begin discussions on their envisaged three-way FTA and an announcement that negotiations will commence on a broader Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. In addition, the European Union decided at a recent meeting of its trade ministers to kick off formal talks with Tokyo on concluding an economic partnership agreement, while Japan has also begun FTA discussions with Canada.
In the meantime, Mexico and Canada — which declared their interest in joining the TPP talks almost at the same time as Noda’s declaration — have already acceded to the negotiations, which currently involve a total of 11 countries around the Pacific Rim.