Japan, China and South Korea are expected to agree to begin negotiations for a trilateral free trade agreement (FTA) during a three-way summit meeting in Beijing on May 13, a South Korean Cabinet minister said.
"Negotiations will start by the end of this year," Bark Tae-ho, South Korea's trade minister, told The Asahi Shimbun in an exclusive interview on May 8.
Officials of the three countries are expected to make final adjustments on the wording of a joint statement to be released at the summit meeting.
Tokyo has been pushing for an early start of the trilateral negotiations. Beijing is like-minded. But Seoul has been less enthusiastic partly because it wishes to prioritize a bilateral FTA with China and partly because an FTA with the United States, which took effect in March, drew intense criticism within South Korea.
Bark was named trade minister in December. His first priority was to lay the groundwork for an FTA with China. Bark met his Chinese counterpart, Commerce Minister Chen Deming, in Beijing on May 2 and announced that the two countries will enter talks. The first session of the bilateral talks will be held in Beijing on May 14.
South Korea has made it no secret that it wants to conclude an FTA with China to get a head start on Japanese enterprises in China's gigantic market. Japan does not have an FTA with China or South Korea.
Bark indicated he does not want the trilateral FTA to take priority over the bilateral one with China, by stressing the importance of preliminary talks for the trilateral framework on the extent of tariff elimination and other issues.
"If preliminary talks fail, negotiations fail, too," Bark said. "It would be meaningless to announce (the start of trilateral FTA talks between Japan, China and South Korea) all too quickly."
Bark said he thought it unlikely for the economic partnership agreement (EPA) talks with Japan, suspended since 2004, to resume soon.
"The interests of both parties should be balanced," Bark said. "There is a need to come up with a direction, on the working level, on how to solve the question of non-tariff barriers and other issues."
Bark indicated that, unlike Tokyo, Seoul is not strongly motivated to seek early membership in the talks for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, partly because his country either has signed, or is negotiating, FTAs with nations that are parties to the TPP talks.
"South Korea is in no hurry," Bark said. "We are ready to join (the TPP) if it has provisions of high levels (such as elimination of tariffs)."
He said Seoul is determined to further expand its network of FTAs.
"South Korea is open to all directions by way of FTAs," Bark said. "Being a hub of a network makes South Korea a more attractive and competitive country."
(This article was written by Akira Nakano and Tetsuya Hakoda, both in Seoul.)
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