Japan plays for time on U.S. push to abolish all but rice tariffs

Kyodo

Japan refrained from making concessions to the United States over calls to scrap tariffs on all items other than politically sensitive rice during recent talks over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, according to sources.

For the discussions held Nov. 14 and 15, Japan had prepared a plan that would enable the United States, a key member in the TPP free trade negotiations, to boost its exports without Japan scrapping tariffs on five sensitive farm product categories — rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar.

But as U.S. officials insisted that tariffs on all items other than rice should be abolished, their Japanese counterparts decided not to present the compromise proposal and the talks ended with no breakthrough.

Japan is seeking to maintain tariffs in the five “sanctuary” categories, but such reluctance to open up its agricultural market could face criticism in a meeting of chief TPP negotiators in Salt Lake City that started Tuesday.

As for possible compromise proposals, Japan is considering introducing a system in trade with the United States that would enable items to be imported with no tariffs, or lowered tariffs, up to a certain quantity.

Japan has imported 360,000 tons of rice per year from the United States under a World Trade Organization deal that obliges Japan to provide minimum market access opportunities in exchange for levying high tariffs on imported rice.

The system Japan could propose as a concession would be different from the so-called minimum access obligation, according to the sources.

Japanese officials are likely to carefully explore the timing for making a concession, including during the meeting of the chief negotiators that will continue through Sunday. But it is uncertain whether the proposal will be accepted.

The 12 countries involved in the TPP negotiations are seeking to conclude a deal by the end of the year. They are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.

Chief negotiators meet

Salt Lake City KYODO

Chief negotiators from the 12 countries working on the Trans-Pacific Partnership began talks Tuesday to smooth out the remaining obstacles to signing a deal before the end of the year.

At issue in the meeting, which is a preparatory effort for ministerial talks in Singapore early next month, is how much the negotiators can narrow remaining gaps mainly over the contentious fields of market access and intellectual property.

On market access, Japan — the second-largest among the 12 economies — is faced with pressure by most of the others to lift tariffs on all agricultural and industrial products, according to negotiation sources.

Japan has said it will keep tariffs on five sensitive farm product categories — rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar — as exceptions under the TPP.

The United States, Tokyo’s closet ally, has urged Japan to eliminate all such tariffs except for rice.

Koji Tsuruoka, representing Japan in the Salt Lake City meeting, told reporters shortly before its start: “This should be an important and decisive meeting as its result will directly link to that of the ministerial talks in Singapore. We still have a lot of issues to tackle.”

The chief negotiators plan to hold a series of sessions through Sunday, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The planned ministerial talks are regarded as a crucial event before achieving the goal of completing the U.S.-led deal by the end of December.

Along with the chief negotiator meeting, working-level officials may hold talks to discuss the envisioned trade pact.