Is a hoped-for deal on Canada-Japan free trade falling apart? Yes. And no.
It's true that talks appear to be languishing. No date has yet been set for the eighth round of free-trade negotiations between the two countries, according to a memorandum of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
But Japan and Canada both have bigger free-trade fish to fry just now. What's more, these fish are actually in the same frying pan, namely the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations among 12 Pacific Rim countries, including the United States.
If the TPP talks are successful, the resulting agreement will be especially beneficial to a middle economic power such as Canada.
Japan and Canada are right – for the time being – to concentrate on the TPP. Japan has the world's third-largest GDP, but it has lost its momentum in recent years. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hoping that a successful TPP agreement will help re-energize his country; it's part of his "Abenomics."
Japan and Canada have this in common: Both countries need to liberalize their agriculture sectors, Japan more broadly, and Canada mainly because of our similarly recalcitrant dairy sector – a steep but not insuperable obstacle.
As international trade lawyer Lawrence Herman says, "The TPP talks are the biggest game going, and the stakes are extremely high for both Canada and Japan. Reverting to a bilateral agenda would be risky, and would be the wrong signal at the wrong time."
One major problem is the shifting sands of Washington, D.C. To get the TPP through, President Barack Obama has had to ally himself with Republicans in Congress, rather than his own Democratic Party.
A little more than a year ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised the great potential of a Canada-Japan trade agreement. He was right. For now, though, the best way forward for liberalizing trade between Japan and Canada is through the bigger, multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership.