SINGAPORE – The chief trade negotiators from the 12 Pacific Rim countries drafting the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade accord will end their working-level talks Friday in Singapore, setting the stage for a crucial ministerial gathering this weekend.
After missing their goal of sealing the pact last year, the ministers will try to reach a broad agreement on politically sensitive issues during a four-day conference through Tuesday. But many issues, including tariff removal, remain unresolved.
During the five-day chief negotiators’ talks ahead of the high-level conference, Japan underwent almost six hours of intense questioning by the other negotiators over its refusal to open up its agriculture market.
More than 100 Japanese officials, headed by Koji Tsuruoka, Japan’s top TPP negotiator, are involved in the working-level talks.
Japan’s position on its so-called five sacred farm categories — rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar — dominated discussions in the three-hour market-access working group meetings Wednesday and Thursday, according to a negotiation source.
Japan stood firm on the five farm categories, insisting its protective position was enshrined in a Diet resolution, the source added, raising concern that it could prevent the negotiations from wrapping up.
“How can it be possible?” the source asked. “The TPP is meant to be a high-quality, comprehensive deal with no exclusions.”
But the source said that the possibility of Japan making concessions over sensitive farm products cannot be ruled out, and that the other negotiating countries will have to hear what Japan’s minister has to say at the full ministerial meeting set to begin Saturday in Singapore.
Akira Amari, minister in charge of TPP affairs, signaled earlier this week that Japan may offer a plan to abolish or reduce tariffs on some of the sensitive goods, saying negotiations would never make progress “if there’s no change at all.”
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who is also slated to attend the four-day ministerial conference, told reporters in Washington on Thursday he is “hopeful” Japan will “come to Singapore fully prepared to show flexibility and creativity to try and break through many differences.”
Froman added the ministers “have a lot of momentum” and he is hopeful they will be able to make “some progress.”
Abe: TPP meet crucial
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday said the upcoming ministerial meeting of countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is an “extremely important” step toward concluding the talks.
“Very tough negotiations are continuing, in which national interests are clashing . . . I want our negotiating team to work as one to achieve national interests,” Abe said at a meeting of TPP-related ministers held to confirm the government’s stance in the regional free trade talks, which also involve the United States.
TPP minister Akira Amari, who will attend Saturday’s meeting in Singapore, told a press conference the same day that the differences between Japan and the United States are “still quite large.”