BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Twelve Pacific Rim countries began the 19th round of negotiations Thursday in Brunei for creating a regional free trade pact, with Japan engaging in full-fledged talks on tariffs and other issues for the first time after joining last month.
Marking the start of the nine-day round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, a ministerial meeting opened in the morning as the countries sought to facilitate the talks toward their target of concluding a deal within this year.
While the negotiations extend to 21 fields, the latest round only deals with 10 of them, including intellectual property rights, state-owned enterprises and tariffs, according to Japanese officials.
Referring to tariff negotiations in the field of market access, Japan’s TPP minister, Akira Amari, said each country has sensitive products, adding he expressed at the ministerial meeting Japan’s intention to “actively discuss ways to deal with such products.”
Japan has been keen to discuss tariffs as it is seeking to protect key farm products by retaining high tariffs on imports.
Amari also reiterated Tokyo’s pledge to cooperate toward concluding the overall TPP talks by the yearend deadline, saying “each country will continue to make efforts” toward the goal despite their respective problems.
Other topics on the table during the round include “rules of origin” that determine the scope of products given tariff protection, and “the environment,” which covers fishing subsidies.
Amari said he stressed the significance of fishing subsidies at the ministerial meeting, indicating he had expressed opposition to a U.S. proposal to reduce them.
Lim Jock Seng, Brunei’s second minister for foreign affairs and trade, said at the opening of the ministerial meeting he hopes countries will “engage constructively on the remaining issues that are on the negotiating table so that we can report positive progress to our leaders.”
Ministers and minister-level officials of the United States and other TPP countries are holding bilateral sessions in addition to the overall ministerial meeting for the first two days of the round, followed by sessions among chief negotiators and negotiators through the end of the round.
Amari met with his counterparts from Brunei, Malaysia and Mexico in the afternoon and is scheduled to meet with those of Canada, Vietnam, Singapore and New Zealand on Friday.
The 12 TPP countries — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam — together account for nearly 40 percent of global economic output and about a third of world trade.
Tokyo sent a delegation of about 120 members to Brunei after the country jumped into the TPP talks from the tail end of the Malaysia round in late July.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has been seeking to help the country’s economy by boosting exports through free trade agreements, but it also faces strong domestic pressure to retain high tariffs it levies on imports of rice and four other key products to protect domestic industry in the TPP negotiations.
During the latest round through Aug. 30, member countries are expected to present their requests and offers regarding tariffs in bilateral sessions.
Japan is expected to hold such sessions with all TPP countries except for the United States, the leading TPP economy, as the U.S. trade representative has said Washington cannot table its offer until September, after it finishes assessing the economic impact of eliminating its tariffs on Japanese products.