Japanese and U.S. officials resumed talks Thursday in Tokyo on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, but the outcome of the negotiations remains unclear with political difficulties mounting for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and indications of growing opposition to the deal in the U.S.
“We want to do what we can do,” chief Japanese negotiator Hiroshi Oe told reporters before the meeting got underway.
The renewed effort to conclude a bilateral agreement on the TPP comes about a month after the last negotiations, in which Tokyo reportedly offered to slash tariffs on beef from the current 38.5 percent to 9 percent over 15 years.
But Japanese negotiators also have reportedly asked for a safeguard measure that would allow the tariff to be raised to 20 percent if Japan’s beef industry is threatened.
For Japan, beef, along with rice, wheat, pork, dairy and sugar products, are “sacred” agricultural products the Diet has vowed to protect from tariff abolitions. But despite growing U.S. pressure on Japan to conclude a deal before Abe visits Washington in late April and early May, recent financial scandals involving Cabinet members, including the resignation of the agriculture minister, have distracted the government.
In addition, with nationwide local elections looming next month, Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition are facing pressure from local chapters in rural districts to stand tough in negotiations.
Shortly after reaching an agreement last month with Abe to restructure the organization, Akira Banzai, chairman of the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (JA Zenchu), warned that if negotiations lead to abolishing tariffs on protected items, his group will lobby hard to oppose the agreement.
Also affecting the negotiations is the continued uncertainty over whether the U.S. Congress will grant President Barack Obama fast-track trade authority, which would allow the executive branch to negotiate a deal with limited congressional input, and then submit a bill that Congress would have to vote on without amendments or lengthy discussion.
During a recent visit to Tokyo, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said a deal over fast-track authority was very close.
However, with a mid-January Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showing 59 percent of Americans think the TPP should be delayed and 16 percent believe it shouldn’t be pursued, there is skepticism on both sides that a final deal will be concluded anytime soon.