Negotiations on the economic partnership agreement between Japan and Australia are starting to get strained, as the two sides try to reach agreement before Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits Japan in early April. However, agricultural committees of both the Lower and Upper houses of the Diet have adopted resolutions asking the government to continue negotiating persistently without setting a deadline. Farmers are deeply concerned as a senior Liberal Democratic Party official noted that Japanese negotiators have proposed reducing tariffs on beef. We cannot allow the two governments to negotiate for the sake of meeting deadlines. Ensuring a sustainable future for agriculture is more important than letting political leaders save face.
The two nations are hastily seeking agreement in April. When the ministerial meeting of the Trans-Pacific Partnership member countries was held in Singapore in February, Australian Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Robb met Koya Nishikawa, head of the LDP’s TPP panel and an influential lawmaker in the agricultural industry, and said Australia hopes to reach agreement on the EPA when Abbott visits Japan in April and sign it in July when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Australia in July. On March 17, Nishikawa met Robb again in Australia, and Robb is scheduled to visit Japan on March 26 to meet agriculture minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and other senior officials.
Negotiations on the EPA, which began in April 2007, were getting close to reaching agreement last spring, but the two countries failed to come to terms, although Japan proposed to lower tariffs on Australian frozen beef and refrigerated grass-fed beef to 30.8 percent from the current 38.5 percent, according to Nishikawa.
Meanwhile, the Diet resolutions urge negotiators to exempt key farm items, such as rice, wheat, beef, dairy products and sugar, from negotiations or make them subject to renegotiation. They demand that the government consider suspending negotiations if Australia fails to accept the conditions. The government’s documents state that “exemption from negotiations” means the items will not become subject to tariff elimination or reduction, and “renegotiation” means the issue will be put off to future negotiations. However, recently the government seems to have changed its interpretation on the term “exemption,” saying that its definition will be decided in the negotiations. The government must keep in mind that it should not interpret the Diet resolutions arbitrarily.
It was Nishikawa who headed the Lower House committee on agriculture when it adopted the resolution in 2006. The resolution was based on the similar resolution adopted by LDP’s agricultural research council, of which the secretariat was also headed by Nishikawa. The resolution was approved at LDP’s General Council, the party’s highest decision-making body. Based on this resolution, Cabinet ministers concerned decided that the government would start negotiations with Australia, despite strong opposition from farmers to negotiate with a major exporting country of agricultural products. Abe was LDP president at that time, serving his first term as a prime minister.
Referring to the TPP talks, Abe told a Diet session that Japan will not set a deadline for concluding negotiations, saying that there could be a danger of other countries taking advantage of it. The EPA negotiations with Australia should be treated the same way.
The resolutions by the LDP and the Diet committees concerning the TPP talks are created on the basis of resolutions on Japan-Australia EPA. Akira Banzai, head of the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (JA-Zenchu), said in an interview with The Japan Agricultural News that “trust is what matters in politics.” Whether we can have trust in the Abe administration depends on whether it sticks to the resolutions in the EPA negotiations.
(March 14, 2014)