Japan stands tough against rice imports in trade talks with US

TOKYO (REUTERS) – Japan took a hard line on defending its rice market in trade talks with the United States, as ministers prepared for negotiations that could pave the way for a broader trans-Pacific trade deal.

Access to Japan’s farm market and the US car market remain obstacles to a bilateral deal, vital to the success of a long-delayed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact.

The world’s biggest and third-biggest economies account for about 80 per cent of the economic output of the 12-member TPP.  

On Sunday, Economy Minister Akira Amari said Japan would not accept a US demand to boost minimum access for its rice imports, ahead of two days of talks with his counterpart, US Trade Representative Michael Froman.  

Staking out Japan’s position, Amari told a talk show that Tokyo would not accept US demands on access for American rice, while pressing Washington to further open the US car-parts market.

“Negotiations can’t work if one side makes no concessions, but there are various domestic restrictions,” Amari told public broadcaster NHK. “Rice, in particular, is produced across Japan, so we are carefully negotiating while feeling a domestic sense of crisis. I can promise it won’t result in anything shocking.”

Japan is prepared to allow an import quota for US rice of 50,000 tonnes a year, just a quarter of the US demand, the Nikkei newspaper reported on Saturday.

“We will not swallow the US demand or close to it,” Amari said, adding that a breakthrough could be made in talks on bilateral car trade.

Japan has sought immediate abolition of a 2.5 per cent tariff on US imports of auto parts, but Washington, under pressure from the politically powerful auto industry, wants to maintain auto-related tariffs as long as possible, the Nikkei reported.

Amari reiterated that he did not expect a deal before a bilateral summit in Washington on April 28 but hoped for progress enough to be welcomed by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Prospects for the bilateral deal improved on Thursday, when senior US lawmakers agreed on the wording of a bill to give Congress a yes-or-no vote on TPP but not the power to alter a deal. But passage of the “fast track” bill, which Japan says is essential, remains far from assured.  

Washington and Tokyo see strategic value to a broad TPP deal as a counterweight to rising China, which has not joined the group.