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A face-to-face meeting Tuesday between the Mexican and Japanese agriculture ministers failed to bridge differences hindering progress toward a free-trade agreement, Japanese officials said.

During a 40-minute meeting, Javier Usabiaga and Yoshiyuki Kamei pledged to continue ironing out “technical details.”

But Kamei said the two made no mention of pork or orange juice, the issues that primarily caused talks to stall last year, saying these negotiations would be left to lower-level officials.

“The agreement must be such as to satisfy Mexican producers,” Usabiaga told The Japan Times on Tuesday morning. In response to reports that Mexico had threatened to abandon negotiations if no agreement is made by the end of March, Usabiaga said, “We will continue to negotiate until an agreement is reached.”

Among the “details” left to be ironed out are the legal phraseology and format of the free-trade agreement, Mexico’s reluctance to reduce tariffs on automobile and steel imports, and Japan’s resistance toward lowering protective tariffs on farm goods, including pork and orange juice.

In the meantime, Mexican exporters said they weren’t exactly holding their breath for an FTA.

“We don’t expect an agreement soon, nor do we expect the quota for orange juice to be large,” said Luis Arturo Rojas, export manager at Grupo Jumex, which currently exports mango and other tropical fruit juice to Japan. “But sooner or later, some agreement will be reached, and we’ll be ready.”

Pork exporters also acknowledged an uphill battle lies ahead.

“It will take time before we can convince Japanese consumers to buy Mexican pork,” said Victor Manuel Garcia, general director at Carnes Genpro, S.A.

As he spoke, two women visiting his booth at a food expo in Chiba shook their heads when offered a sample.

Mexico has been pushing for ways to expand its pork exports. Used primarily in restaurants and processed food, pork makes up nearly half of Mexico’s agricultural exports to Japan.

Currently, Japan imposes a tariff of close to 50 percent on imported pork.

Failure to reach an agreement with Mexico bodes ill for other FTA negotiations in progress. Agriculture is a common stumbling block for the talks with South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia.

“Failure for Mexico and Japan to sign a free-trade accord would hurt both countries, but Japan has slightly more to lose,” said Noboru Hatakeyama, chairman and CEO of the Japan Economic Foundation.

In 2002, Mexico exported products worth some 472.3 billion yen.

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