A meeting between U.S. and Japanese trade ministers on Thursday regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) failed to produce fruit, foiling the two nations’ joint efforts to affect a compromise amidst increasingly intractable disputes.
Akira Amari, Japan’s TPP Minister, despondently reported that intense negotiations couldn’t close the “fairly big” divide between the squabbling countries. His prognosis was not optimistic. Speaking at a press conference, he said, “We have yet to be able to break the stalemate. We cannot make headway on key items. It seems difficult to make progress on the central part (of the negotiations).”
By “central part” Amari certainly means the thorny issue of Japan’s agricultural protectionism, or its reluctance to move toward a tariff-free regime under the TPP. Japan has resisted fully liberalizing its agricultural sector, nominating five product areas as “sacred,” which means effectively taken off the table for negotiation. Problematically, beef and rice are among the areas the U.S. has been equally insistent are, at the very least, open to the possibility of future revision.
The last time Amari met with U.S Trade Representative Michael Froman both of them concluded the talks with a cautious expression of hopefulness, touting their collaborative efforts to at least clarify the terms of the distance between them. Japan agreed to slice its tariffs in half, reducing the duty on Australian beef to less than 20 percent from 38.5% over the next eighteen years. Japan, though, still maintains its tariff on U.S. beef at 38.5%. Froman then said, “We’ve made some progress over the last two days, but there are still considerable differences in our positions on key issues.”
Froman even went as far as to say they had settled some points of agreement, or “landing zones,” so confidently they had been handed off from minister level authorities to lower-level bureaucrats for the sake of hammering out technical details, a sign that major ideological divides had been bridged. The U.S. had secured a reasonably impressive measure of consensus on controversial issues like intellectual property protections, the role of state-owned enterprises and rules of origin. The U.S. has also been jockeying for agreement on a special tribunal established to allow signatory nations to challenge violations of TPP rules outside the jurisdiction of their own courts.
After the last round of talks, though, Froman seemed to lack confidence in even those modest agreements. “It’s been tough negotiations and we are working to see whether we can find a landing zone.”