RIO DE JANEIRO/WASHINGTON – The 11 countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations began their 17th round of talks in Lima on Wednesday with the focus on whether exceptions should be made to the general rule of tariff elimination.
Even though Japan gained the unanimous backing of the members last month to become the 12th member of the talks, it cannot take part until the U.S. completes the 90-day notice required by Congress to admit it. The earliest Japan can join is expected to be the July round in Malaysia.
With Japan seeking to protect its rice and other sensitive agricultural products by retaining tariffs through the TPP negotiations, decisions by the existing members at the 10-day meeting could affect Tokyo’s plans for the talks.
Decisions already made by TPP members are not renegotiable as countries aim to conclude a deal by the end of the year.
A total of 17 working groups will hold meetings this round. The one on market access, which deals with tariffs on farm products among others, will meet May 20-24, according to the Peruvian trade ministry.
Prior to the start of the meeting, Japanese officials said they plan on sending its members to the Latin American country to gather information on the negotiations.
“It is important to ask (for information) before and after the meeting, as Japan cannot attend even as an observer,” a senior official said.
The 11 members of the negotiations are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
With Japan’s entry, the TPP countries would account for nearly 40 percent of global economic output and about a third of world trade, even without China as a member.
Japan has been accelerating its free-trade negotiations, both bilaterally and multilaterally, as the government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to boost the country’s exports to help revive its economy.
But Japanese farmers who have long been protected by tariffs have voiced concerns that the country’s participation in the free-trade talks would lead to an influx of cheap foreign products.
In this regard, Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Kenichiro Sasae said Wednesday in Washington that Japan aims for a “high-standard” TPP agreement, brushing aside concerns among member states that Tokyo may demand a number of exceptions that could make the entire trade framework just a patchwork.
Asked whether Japan is really pursuing a high-standard and comprehensive TPP agreement, “the answer is yes,” Sasae said in a speech in Washington.
Sasae said that Japan has already been working with the U.S. to create high-standard rules in intellectual property protection, investment liberalization and other fields.
Japan has some items that need to be protected from competition, including farm products, like the U.S. and other countries involved in the TPP talks, but this will not hamper progress in the talks, he said.
Sasae said Japan’s decision to join the TPP talks is not designed to counter the threat from any specific country.