A more assertive Obama administration and a less dogmatic New Zealand government are keys to the successful completion of negotiations aimed at creating a major free-trading bloc involving Canada and 11 other countries on both sides of the Pacific, Japan's economics minister says.
"I will not comment on domestic issues of the United States. However, the point of concern I have at present is that the White House seems to be losing its grip over the U.S. Congress," says Akira Amari, who is spearheading Japan's efforts to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks with a far-reaching trade deal by the end of this year or early in 2015, if possible.
Japan itself has long come under fire for protectionist trade policies, particularly in agriculture, leading some critics to wonder if Tokyo should even have been included in the current negotiations. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the TPP and other free-trade pacts a key plank in his ambitious agenda, commonly known as Abenomics, to revitalize and reform the Japanese economy. And that includes such former sacred cows as rice and other farm products.
So far, though, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress appear to be in the mood to co-operate.
The Democratic opposition in the House "was basically anti-free-trade to start with," Mr. Amari said through an interpreter during an interview in his Tokyo office. And the Republicans, who tend to support free-trade in theory, see no reason to back the Obama administration, especially when it isn't showing a strong will to get the deal done quickly anyway.
"The U.S. President should be more in contact [with congressmen] himself, with more passion and more enthusiasm as he tries to persuade them."
Simply put, the administration needs to do more heavy-lifting on the free-trade file.
The New Zealand government, meanwhile, presents a different sort of stumbling block, by taking what Mr. Amari calls a "fundamentalist" all-or-nothing approach to the talks that leaves no room for compromise on such sensitive issues as market access for agricultural products.
"Each country has its own area of sensitivity: some in goods, others with regard to rules. There probably is no country which has zero sensitivity," Mr. Amari says. "So it is important for countries to recognize the minimum levels of sensitivity that each has and to recognize each other's position."
Most of the countries involved in the talks support this view, he insists.
But that still leaves the question of New Zealand and its insistence that only zero barriers will suffice.
"I feel that the time has come for New Zealand to withdraw its fundamentalist approach," Mr. Amari says. "As long as countries continue to assert their [zero or nothing] position, we will not arrive at a conclusion to the agreement."