The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and six other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, have agreed to start negotiations for a regional pact to promote freer trade and investment. The pact is called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
The 16 countries, which also include China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, are collectively called ASEAN+6.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has already put two other prospective regional trade agreements on his agenda--the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, led by the United States, and a free trade agreement (FTA) among Japan, China and South Korea. Noda has pledged to pursue these three multilateral trade deals among Asia-Pacific nations simultaneously.
But he has postponed announcing Japan’s formal participation in the TPP talks.
If Japan wants to revitalize its economy by capitalizing on the economic vitality of the Asia-Pacific region, it needs to expand the networks of economic cooperation with its trade partners in the region.
Separate diplomatic efforts to reach trade agreements can be mutually enhancing. Progress in the talks for one deal could give impetus to the negotiations for another.
The Noda administration should not forget that the TPP, which covers a wider range of areas and aims for higher levels of liberalization than the two other trade accords, holds the key to success of its overall trade policy.
Let us look back on related developments in the past year.
During the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum held in November last year, Noda declared that Japan would begin talks with countries about its participation in the ongoing TPP negotiations.
Noda’s move swiftly led to the start of talks for a three-nation FTA among Japan, China and South Korea.
While South Korea, which has a trade deficit with Japan, remained lukewarm about the idea, China’s newfound enthusiasm about the trilateral trade pact was a pivotal factor for the agreement among the three nations to embark on the negotiations.
As for the RCEP, Beijing called for an agreement under the ASEAN+3 (Japan, China and South Korea) framework, while Tokyo, which wants to counteract China’s influence, lobbied for a deal within the ASEAN+6 formula. China eventually made a concession.
It is widely believed that these changes in China’s attitude were prompted by Japan’s interest in the TPP, which apparently alarmed policymakers in Beijing.
The negotiations for both the RCEP and the tripartite FTA are certain to be complicated and arduous due to a thicket of conflicting interests among the participants.
Japan’s strained relations with China and South Korea will further complicate the tasks.
That, however, only reinforces the case for Japan’s strong commitment to the TPP talks, which could create new opportunities to achieve breakthroughs in its efforts to tackle the tough economic and diplomatic challenges confronting it.
There is still strong opposition at home to Japan’s participation in the TPP talks. Some critics say vital specifics of the envisioned agreement are unclear, while others warn that the pact would ruin Japan’s agriculture and health-care system.
Japan needs to take part in the TPP negotiations to obtain more accurate information about the agreement and influence the development of trade rules among the countries involved.
It is the job of political leaders to make tenacious efforts to convince the public of the benefits of joining the talks.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 18
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