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Staff writer

Japan will begin talks with the four Mercosur member countries in South America this month to identify infrastructure and other projects in the economic trading bloc that have potential for bilateral cooperation, Foreign Ministry officials said Tuesday.

The first round of talks with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay will be held at the working level in Buenos Aires on May 29, the officials said, asking not to be named.

Mercosur is one of many regional economic groupings that have cropped up in Latin America in the 1990s in the form of free-trade areas or customs unions. The Mercosur countries roughly equal Asia’s “tigers” — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — in terms of combined gross domestic product.

Among the Japanese participants in the meeting will be officials from the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the Export-Import Bank of Japan, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Japan External Trade Organization, the officials said.

Japan hopes the talks will lead to an agreement to team up on some of the region’s projects at the third regular meeting of deputy foreign ministers, to be held sometime this autumn, the officials said. One official said Japan expects the four countries to list specific cross-border and other projects at the Buenos Aires meeting that they will want to implement with Japanese economic cooperation.

Japan also wants to present the Mercosur countries with “a menu of available means for economic cooperation” that not only includes official development assistance — or ODA — but also loans from the Export-Import Bank of Japan, coverage by the government-run trade and investment insurance scheme, and private-sector funds, the official said.

Based on Mercosur’s wish list, Tokyo will decide by the end of July which projects it can or wants to cooperate in implementing, the official said. However, Japan has stipulated that any such projects must be “recognized as common projects” of the Mercosur countries before cooperation can actually be extended.

Since the end of the 1980s, countries in the region — with the exception of Cuba — have established democratic political systems after years under military dictatorships. They also have pushed ahead with free-market reforms, economic liberalization programs, fiscal reform measures and privatization of inefficient state-owned enterprises. The situation contrasts somewhat with the current currency and financial crises in Asia, which many economists blame on cozy relationships between government and business, a lack of transparency in policymaking, official corruption, and nepotism.

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