Wednesday, October 9, 2013
EDITORIAL: Japan, Speak With A Louder Voice In TPP Talks
TOKYO (Nikkei)--The latest round of talks on forming a multilateral free trade bloc spanning the Pacific ended Tuesday in Bali without any major progress being made toward striking an agreement.
The leaders participating in the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership accord only reaffirmed their commitment to wrapping up a deal by the end of the year. Unfortunately, the Indonesian summit was overshadowed by the U.S. government shutdown, which forced President Barack Obama to stay home.
But it would be wrong to assume that the political storm in the U.S. will significantly change Washington's foreign policy, which puts top priority on East Asia.
The U.S. places such importance on the region partly because it is more economically vibrant than any other part of the world, and partly because China -- which is not keen on multilateral cooperation -- is rapidly expanding its influence in the region.
Instead of lamenting the decline of the Obama administration's diplomatic leadership, Japan should redouble its own efforts to push the negotiations forward. Tokyo has a clear interest in leading the talks to establish new regional trade rules for this age of economic globalization while pushing through structural reforms for higher economic efficiency at home.
The Obama administration hopes to get a TPP deal sewn up as soon as possible, and the U.S. negotiators showed signs of frustration about the political turmoil at home. But the administration is finding it harder to sell its proposals to Congress and the business community because of its weakening political clout.
As a result, Washington's attitude toward its negotiation partners is becoming less flexible, provoking complaints from emerging Asian countries participating in the talks.
Japan should use this as an opportunity to play a key role in building consensus among participants to bring the negotiations to an early conclusion.
Liberalizing international trade and investment cannot be achieved simply by upholding lofty free trade principles. And it does not work if the countries involved focus primarily on protecting their national interests.
For a major economic power to provide effective leadership on trade-liberalization talks, it needs to provide convincing explanations about the benefits of free trade to emerging countries as well as demonstrate a solid commitment to carrying out necessary reforms at home.
If the U.S. cannot perform this role in the TPP negotiations, Tokyo should pinch-hit for Washington. The U.S. negotiation strategy is slightly too simple and rigid and fails to pay sufficient attention to complicated domestic circumstances in emerging Asian nations.
Japan's "Sensitive" Side
Working out a trade pact demands a delicate diplomatic sensibility and a heightened sensitivity to differing interests and concerns among participants. That is what Japan is good at.
Take, for instance, the highly challenging task of creating new international rules concerning intellectual property rights. Emerging countries are opposed to many of the U.S. proposals for this area but they lack the experience and expertise needed to present alternative ideas.
It is possible for Japan to guide the talks away from a simple battle over the U.S. proposals and instead lead them toward cooperation on crafting new proposals acceptable to all members.
After the Bali meeting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the leaders shared the recognition that they need to make "political decisions" on key issues. But other Asian participants expect Japan to contribute more toward engineering a deal by the end of the year. The stage for deepening mutual understanding of the differences among participants has passed.
The weakening of the Obama administration's diplomatic leadership inevitably increases the Abe government's responsibility for promoting free trade in the region. Now that the premier has significantly strengthened his political power base at home, it is time for him to take the leadership in the negotiations for this potentially transformative regional trade pact.
(The Nikkei, Oct. 9 morning edition)