Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making final preparations to announce Japan’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations after holding talks later Friday with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, government sources said.
The move reflects the government’s view that it will be able to persuade the United States to accept Japan’s request to exempt from tariff elimination certain politically sensitive items, such as rice and beef, under the terms of the eventual TPP framework, the sources said Thursday.
Abe is expected to make a final decision after confirming Obama’s stance during their summit and consulting senior lawmakers of his Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling coalition.
He may announce Japan’s participation in the TPP talks in a policy speech at the Diet on either Feb. 28 or March 1, according to the sources.
Given concerns even among Abe’s LDP that participating in the Pacific Rim trade initiative will result in an influx of cheaper agricultural produce from overseas, the government will consider measures to support domestic farmers.
But providing Tokyo secures Washington’s support for exempting some food products from tariff elimination, Abe believes joining the TPP would enable Japan to enjoy the benefits of free trade while protecting certain domestic industries, the sources said.
“If it takes a month to make the announcement after the summit meeting, Japan’s attitude (toward the TPP) could be brought into question,” a government official said.
Unveiling the decision sooner could also help mitigate negative fallout in advance of this summer’s House of Councillors election.
But if Obama takes a tougher-than-expected position on Abe’s request, Tokyo may shift to a cautious stance toward participation, the sources added.
Japan has been considering whether to join the ongoing multilateral negotiations on the TPP. A total of 11 countries, including Australia, Chile and Vietnam, are already hammering out the pact’s framework, and the United States hopes Japan will eventually join the negotiations.
During the campaign for the Dec. 16 general election that the LDP won by a landslide, the party pledged that Japan would not join the TPP negotiations as long as they are premised on the elimination of all tariffs without exception.
While Abe has adhered to this policy, he has also indicated readiness to explore the possibility of participating in the talks, saying at a Diet meeting, “I will devote all my strength to secure the national interest.”
LDP lawmakers have been urging Abe to secure exemptions to tariff eliminations, to block the introduction of numerical targets on car imports and to maintain the domestic health insurance system, among other objectives, if Japan joins the TPP talks.
To join the negotiations, an entrant country needs to first obtain the approval of all 11 nations currently involved in the regional trade accord. The government is expected to seek approval from the United States and the other member states after making an announcement on Japan’s entry.