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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 04:39 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 04:39 | SYDNEY

Australia-Japan trade talks: The tedium's just starting

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28 April 2008 16:39

Spare a thought for our trade negotiators – high pain threshold, high boredom threshold, and an extraordinary ability to do meetings. This week marks the first birthday of the free trade negotiations with Japan, but the celebrations are muted because the tough part of this process gets under way in Canberra today. 

This week will see the tabling by both sides of their initial offers on services and investment – the start of the detailed bargaining about market access. The offers on goods have already been made and – surprise, surprise – Australian officials describe Japan’s proposal on agriculture as 'disappointing.' Tokyo has said it intends to make no concessions in negotiations on access for Australian beef, dairy, wheat, barley and sugar.

This week, Australia is going to spend a lot of time going through the details of the complex regulatory restrictions Japan places on beef and dairy. The Australian side is going to pile on the detail to show how Japan imposes up to an extra 350 per cent on the cost of Australian dairy products through high out-of-quota tariff rates, plus regulations which restrict who can import diary products.

Beyond the details, there is the clash of philosophies. The Tokyo position is that there should be no agricultural liberalisation unless it can be demonstrated that no Japanese farmer will be harmed. In the words of one senior Australian official, 'agriculture is going to be very difficult…it’s going to need high level political intervention.'

The Trade Minister, Simon Crean, says Australia will only conclude deals with Japan and China if they are 'high quality'. In theory, the Labor Government could walk away from the negotiations for discriminatory bilateral deals with China and Japan, initiated by the Howard Government. Labor often criticised the Coalition for putting to much effort into bilateralism ahead of the more important multilateral system. But after spending years on the process, could any Australian Government turn its back on separate trade agreements with Australia’s two biggest customers, even if they were lousy deals?

The issues of political symbolism may, eventually, loom as large as the trade details. That point, though, is still several years away. As with the three-year-old bilateral negotiations with China, there is no deadline for the Japan talks. That means there will be more birthdays to come.

Photo by Flickr user Meffi , used under a Creative Commons licence.

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