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Friday, March 11, 2011

Pitching TPP a tough nut to crack


By MIYA TANAKA
Kyodo News

The Kan administration is facing head winds in pushing the idea of joining negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership as concerns spread among the public that participation in the free-trade pact would adversely affect not only the farm sector but other, wide-reaching areas as well.

To whip up opposition to joining the TPP, which is aimed at opening up trade in high-end goods and services among other changes, critics insist the pact may lead to a flood of unskilled foreign laborers, unsafe food and a drop in the quality of medical services.

The administration is trying to play down such concerns, some of which it says are not based on accurate information, and is working on a paper outlining how it expects the TPP negotiations in areas other than tariffs would proceed.

"For any country, investment and services are areas difficult to liberalize. . . . So the TPP would not pursue something like complete liberalization (of those areas) within 10 years in principle, like in tariffs," the administration said in the draft paper.

The paper responds to concerns about an influx of unskilled foreign workers taking away jobs and pushing down wages, saying the issue is not being discussed in the current TPP talks.

On the chance that food safety rules may be eased, the administration says it is of the understanding that the main focus of the TPP talks on food safety, including sanitary measures, is to improve the speed and transparency of related procedures. It also stipulates Japan would respond in a way that would "not undermine food safety in any kind of trade negotiations."

But it is uncertain how much the statement will reassure the public, with Cabinet ministers admitting they are not getting enough information on the TPP negotiations because Japan is outside the process.

National policy minister Koichiro Genba admitted late last month he is in a bind: He hopes to offer the public as much information as possible so people can decide whether Japan should join the TPP talks, but being outside the negotiations limits available details.

He also told reporters after attending an opinion exchange with the public about trade policy that he found "misunderstandings" on the TPP issue, most typically on the liberalization of the movement of people.

It is well known that the TPP intends to require member economies in principle to reduce all tariffs to zero, but it is still unclear what kind of trade and investment rules will be established through the current talks.

Besides the farm industry, which fears being hit hard by tariff elimination, the Japan Medical Association has pointed to the impact the TPP would likely have on the health sector, saying further deregulation could "destroy" the government-backed universal health care system.

The administration, however, said in the paper there "is no need to worry" that medical services will deteriorate through an increase in foreign doctors, since "strict requirements" are needed to practice medicine in Japan and the government would take the initiative to maintain quality.

But not all of the concerns can simply be shrugged off. One persistent worry is over government procurement.

"It's becoming like a whack-a-mole game," a government official said about the difficulty in putting a lid on arguments arising from opponents that are fanning fears about the TPP.

In a sign that the government is being put on the defensive, trade minister Banri Kaieda, who has supported joining the TPP talks, has also opened the door to "an honorable withdrawal" in the event Japan joins the TPP talks but then later feels the pact would be unacceptable.

The opponents, meanwhile, aren't backing off. Mamoru Moteki, a farm industry leader, said during a symposium last week in Tokyo that the TPP could bring problems that would "drastically change the country's shape" because of the agreement's broad scope.

"We would like to cooperate with many others who would be affected significantly by the TPP, and create a national consensus that we are absolutely against participation," the president of the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives said.



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