The Dec. 10 adjournment of minister-level talks in Singapore on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade scheme means that the negotiations will not conclude by the yearend deadline set by leaders of the 12 participating countries at their October meeting in Bali.
Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to conclude the TPP talks as soon as possible, an early conclusion should not become Japan’s goal. There is the risk that trying to hurry a deal will result in sacrificing important national interests.
Participants at the latest meeting failed to close gaps in several areas including the abolition of tariffs and protection of intellectual property. In an attempt to complete the negotiations at an early date, they plan to meet again in January to discuss issues on which compromise has been difficult.
A rough agreement was reached in the area of government procurement, which includes bidding rules for public works projects. Under the agreement, foreign countries would have a greater chance to take part in the construction or improvement of roads, railways and bridges in a given country.
In the area of market access for goods, the United States is adamant in calling for the complete abolition of tariffs. But Japan wants to keep tariffs on imports of rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and on agricultural products for sugar production in order to protect Japan’s agricultural sector. Japan, on the one hand, and the U.S. and some other countries, on the other, could not rectify their differences in this area.
Japan should not seek a quick conclusion in the talks in this area since it directly affects the nation’s food security. Japanese negotiators should realize the simple fact that any nation that must completely or greatly rely on imports for its food supply is vulnerable. They should carefully proceed with the talks.
Japan has already made a concession to the U.S. — allowing the U.S. to prolong the imposition of tariffs on car imports in the hopes that the U.S. would make a reciprocal concession. As the U.S. has shown no signs of reciprocating, Japanese negotiators should not forget this bitter lesson.
At the Singapore meeting, the U.S. called for the extension of patent rights for newly developed drugs and copyright protections, and for the abolition of protective measures for state-run enterprises. Emerging economies such as Malaysia strongly opposed these proposals, as they want to make use of generic drugs and to screen old movies without paying royalties.
There was also a confrontation between developed and developing countries over concerns about environmental protection, and the use and protection of water resources.
Although liberalization of trade and services under the TPP may bring some benefits to participating countries, the TPP includes a mechanism that will put the interests of business corporations above those of sovereign states by allowing them to sue governments when the corporations suspect that domestic laws and regulations have hampered their activities.
This investor-state dispute settlement mechanism will allow enterprises to supersede governments’ laws and regulations on environment, health, food safety and other issues.
It is regrettable that the Japanese government is almost silent on this mechanism. The public needs to watch the TPP negotiations because it is not an ordinary trade pact. It includes an element that could undermine the very foundations of the sovereign state.