New Zealand prime minister hails Japan's role in TPP before meeting Abe

Kyodo, Reuters

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English said Wednesday ahead of his meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo that both countries “can and will” take a leading role in securing the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact following the withdrawal of the United States.

Speaking before business leaders in the capital, English said Japan and New Zealand are “committed to progressing a TPP agreement because we believe it’s in our region’s interest, it’s in the interest of our countries and it’s in the interest of global stability.”

The Abe administration has not explicitly come out in favor of bringing the wide-ranging pact into force without the United States, keeping hope alive that Washington may come back on board in the future.

But Abe and English appear to be on the same page in their desire to keep meetings going between the remaining signatories.

New Zealand ratified the TPP involving 12 Pacific Rim countries last Thursday, becoming the second signatory to do so after Japan, which completed its domestic ratification procedures in December last year.

The United States pulled out of the accord shortly after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.

Japan’s Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Nobuteru Ishihara and New Zealand Trade Minister Todd McClay confirmed Monday in Tokyo that their countries will aim to reach an agreement with other signatories to move forward with the deal by November when an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit will be held this weekend.

Trade ministers of TPP member countries will talk on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, where newly appointed U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is also due to give more detail of Washington’s trade plans.

On Tuesday, Abe said Japan wanted to “steer the debate toward a clear direction” in Hanoi.

Uncertainty over those plans after Trump abandoned a trade deal he had compared to the “rape” of America has brought fears of protectionism and strengthened China’s leadership credentials in Asia.

Support has built among the so-called TPP-11 for pushing ahead without the United States although trade within the smaller block is only a quarter of that between the original 12 members, according to the most recent data.

Moving ahead could help the bargaining position of the members in bilateral talks with the United States.

It could also undercut the increasing regional dominance of China, which is not part of the TPP and backs a bigger but less comprehensive free trade agreement for Asia.

“We’ll be looking to see whether TPP ministers say they are definitely pushing ahead by simply by changing the articles,” said Alan Bollard, executive director of the APEC Secretariat.

“Or whether they come out and say they’re positive about the prospects but need more discussions,” he said in Hanoi.

During the summit talks later on Wednesday, Abe and English are also likely to affirm their cooperation in the sporting arena ahead of Japan’s hosting of the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

They may also discuss regional issues, including North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development efforts, and affirm their understanding of the situation in the South China Sea, where China’s expansionary activities have raised concern in Tokyo.

English became prime minister in December last year after his predecessor John Key stepped down citing family reasons. He is scheduled to visit Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido on Thursday before leaving for Hong Kong.