Farm minister Tadamori Oshima on Thursday rejected a WTO panel chief’s proposal that would cut import tariffs on farm produce by up to 45 percent.

Oshima told a hurriedly convened news conference that Japan cannot accept the proposal by Stuart Harbinson, chairman of the World Trade Organization’s agricultural negotiations committee, to cut import duties on farm produce by between 25 percent and 45 percent, depending on the current rates of tariffs.

Japan, a net importer of food, uses high tariffs on some agricultural products to protect farmers, who form a strong voting base for the dominant Liberal Democratic Party.

According to the farm ministry, the first draft formulas and targets, or so-called modalities, for members’ commitments circulated by Harbinson require Japan to nearly halve its 490 percent rice tariff rate.

“The proposed tariff reductions are extremely large — too ambitious,” Oshima said. The proposals are “unfairly in favor of some farm exporters’ stand,” he said, referring to large tariff cuts proposed by the United States and Australia.

The Harbinson proposal is expected to serve as the basis for three days of informal talks of trade and agriculture ministers from 22 economies that begins Friday in Tokyo.

Japan will do its utmost to shrink the proposed figures with allies that include the European Union and garner support from developing countries, the agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister said.

The draft also prompted strong opposition from Japan’s leading farm lobby group.

“The draft modalities should be immediately scrapped,” said Isami Miyata, president of the influential Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (Zenchu). “If this draft goes unchallenged, it would lead to denying the very existence of agriculture in Japan and other farm produce-importing countries.

“We can’t help but say the 145-member WTO is denying its own (role) as an equitable and reliable international organ.”

Oshima said the proposal adopts the so-called Uruguay Round formula, but in reality, it reflects the view of harmonization that calls for narrowing gaps in tariffs for all items without exception. He claimed the proposal does “not attempt to equalize burdens to be shared by each country and it does not appropriately reflect issues of interests in nontrade areas.”

The Uruguay Round formula, supported by Japan and the EU, combines average and minimum rates for item-by-item tariff reductions.

Under the formula, Japan and the EU propose reducing agricultural tariffs by an average of 36 percent and a minimum of 15 percent to allow some tariffs to be kept high.

However, the agricultural exporters, including the U.S. and the Cairns group, led by Australia, are calling for a uniform 25 percent cap on all farm tariffs under the so-called Swiss formula.

The Harbinson proposal is part of a first draft on the modalities for the WTO members’ commitments to slash tariffs and subsidies.

“Overall, the Harbinson proposal is unacceptable and we think it needs to be revised in many points,” Oshima said.

Agricultural negotiations are part of a multilateral trade round the WTO members launched in November 2001 in Doha, Qatar, with an overall deadline of Jan. 1, 2005.

The Geneva-based global trade watchdog has set itself a March 31 deadline for agreeing on a road map for specific farm liberalization goals.

Call for own trade body

Japan should set up a trade negotiation body similar to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to better represent the country at global trade negotiations, the chairman of the Japan Foreign Trade Council proposed Thursday.

“Because Japan should formulate a single trade policy, it needs to set up an organization like the USTR,” Kenji Miyahara said in the runup to three days of World Trade Organization ministerial talks starting Friday in Tokyo.

Miyahara, also chairman of trading house Sumitomo Corp., said several Japanese government offices are involved in the new WTO trade round.

Japan must seriously consider who holds a prime responsibility for multilateral trade negotiations, such as the WTO talks, he said.

The new WTO round of global trade talks kicked off in November 2001 in Doha, Qatar, with an overall deadline of Jan. 1, 2005.

Agricultural issues are expected to take center stage in Tokyo, with Japan and the European Union at odds with the United States, Australia and developing nations over tariff cuts.

The Geneva-based organization has set a March 31 deadline for agreeing on a framework for specific agricultural liberalization goals.

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