• Kyodo

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Negotiators from Japan and the Philippines made “significant progress” in their latest round of talks on a proposed bilateral free-trade agreement, according to the Philippines’ chief negotiator.

But while making headway on such issues as Filipino nurses and caregivers being allowed to work in Japan, the two sides have yet to iron out differences over the more thorny issue of market access for agricultural products from the Philippines.

Thomas Aquino, undersecretary for internal trade in the Department of Trade and Industry, told a news conference the outcome of the fifth round of talks that ended Friday “moves the negotiations to a more advanced stage that hopefully will pave the way for the closing of the deal.”

The overall negotiations, he said, “have moved forward in all fronts.”

“That means that the differences have been ironed out,” he said. “Not all have been ironed out, but certainly as far as all of the areas are concerned, there has been significant progress.”

Aquino said the two sides agreed in their five days of talks to hold a series of “specific sessions on technical matters” in November.

“Common understanding on major areas may take a bit longer than expected unless both sides make adjustments to their positions so that we can seek consensus of general principles by the end of the year,” he said.

Agriculture Assistant Secretary Segfredo Serrano said the series of talks will further flesh out the contentious market access issues in the area of agriculture, the main bone of contention in the talks.

“We had a very frank exchange of views,” Serrano said. “But we are now in the most delicate stage of the negotiations. Agriculture is really very difficult. They have defensive sensitivities, we have offensive sensitivities — and they’re almost perfectly symmetrical.”

Serrano said the two countries’ negotiators “will explore everything, from all angles, considering all dimensions, including political.”

The Philippine side also considered the Japanese side’s areas of sensitivity, particularly for some of its agricultural products.

“The Philippines, however, remains committed to request for market access for its own agricultural products, particularly as it’s open to provide for market access on areas of Japanese interest,” Aquino said.

One of the issues in the talks has been Tokyo’s insistence that Filipino nurses must pass Japan’s qualification examinations to work in the country. Currently foreign nurses are permitted to work in Japan only after graduating from Japanese nursing schools and obtaining government qualifications.

Aquino, however, said “nothing has been reached yet” on qualification conditions for nurses and caregivers.

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