Noda — between rock, hard place

Jumping on TPP bus promises rough ride, at home, abroad


Staff Writer

Following Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s announcement Friday that Japan will join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks, the focus of attention has now shifted to this weekend’s summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Honolulu.

Despite fierce opposition from lawmakers in his ruling Democratic Party of Japan, Noda is expected to officially convey his decision on the TPP to other world leaders at the summit.

Opponents warn that if Japan becomes a TPP member, it could spell disaster for some domestic industries, but supporters argue the move would boost Japan’s exports and could even represent a step toward the realization of a wider free-trade zone in the Asia-Pacific region.

The nine nations currently involved in the TPP talks — Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, the United States, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Peru — are expected to present a broad outline of the envisioned free-trade framework at the APEC summit.

The TPP aims to create a free-trade zone that would cover much of the Asia-Pacific region and eliminate all tariffs in principle. It would also establish regulations in various fields, such as trade facilitation, intellectual property, the environment and labor, although no specific details have been released.

The key issues for Japan from this point are whether it will have a significant say in the final version of the TPP framework after joining the negotiations at such a late stage.

Some U.S. lawmakers have also expressed concerns that allowing the world’s third-largest economy to join the talks so late could further complicate and delay a conclusion over the final framework, which the U.S. hopes to reach by next summer.

A major area of concern for the other countries involved in the talks is whether Japan is genuinely prepared to slash tariffs, such as the 778 percent duty on rice and the 252 percent levy on wheat, and open up its markets to overseas competition.

Only 16 percent of the goods Japan imports are currently free of tariffs.

Noda is expected to hold talks Sunday with U.S. President Barack Obama in Honolulu and inform him of his decision to join the TPP negotiations. But Noda and Obama are also expected to discuss the contentious relocation of the U.S. Futenma base in Okinawa.

Noda will also meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and their encounter will be closely watched after bilateral ties last year plunged to their lowest point in recent times when a Chinese trawler had a run-in with Japan Coast Guard cutters trying to shoo it away from the disputed Senkaku Islands in September 2010.

The two leaders are expected to discuss ways to prevent further maritime incidents, as well as fishing rights near the Senkaku Islands and how to restart stalled negotiations on a treaty covering joint gas field development in the East China Sea.

But while Noda’s agenda for the two-day summit is crammed with various regional and economic issues, he will immediately have to make efforts to maintain the DPJ’s internal unity once he returns to Japan.

His decision to join the TPP negotiations has created strong opposition within the DPJ, and some lawmakers have hinted they were ready to bolt from the party if the prime minister simply ignored their views.

“The debate within Noda’s own party will be fierce and there is a possibility that DPJ members will defect. A no-confidence vote against the prime minister is also a possibility,” said Paul Scott, a professor of asian studies at Kansai Gaidai University.