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Australia, Japan hope to start FTA talks

The Age, Melbourne

Australia, Japan hope to start FTA talks

2 August 2006

(AAP) Visiting Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expressed hope that Canberra could enter into official negotiations on a free trade agreement with Japan next year by concluding the ongoing feasibility study at an early date, Japanese officials said.

Downer discussed the FTA issue in separate meetings in Tokyo with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai, the officials said.

Nikai showed a cautious stance, citing difficulties surrounding Japan’s farm sector, and responded, "whether to take the next step will be dependent on the study group’s conclusion," according to one of the officials.

On other matters, Downer and Aso discussed the North Korean missile issue and the Japanese ground troops’ withdrawal from the southern Iraqi city of Samawah where Australian forces had provided security, the officials said.

Downer was quoted as telling Aso that he had called on North Korea to comply with a UN Security Council resolution on Pyongyang’s missile launches and to return to the six-party talks aimed at resolving the standoff over the country’s nuclear ambitions.

The Australian foreign minister said he had conveyed the matter to his North Korean counterpart Paek Nam Sun when the two met on the sidelines of a recent regional conference in Kuala Lumpur, the officials said.

Aso thanked Downer for Australia’s support in the Security Council resolution and asked for continued cooperation in resolving the North Korean missile issue, the officials said.

Japan, Australia and other countries are urging North Korea to comply with a UN Security Council resolution adopted last month which condemns North Korea’s July 5 test-firing of seven ballistic missiles and urges it to reinstate its missile launch moratorium and return to the six-party talks.

As for Iraq, Downer praised the Japan-Australia cooperation in Samawah and called for stronger security cooperation in future endeavours, just as he had during his talks with Japanese leaders on Tuesday, the officials said.

Aso, in response, said his ministry and the Defence Agency would think about the matter, considering that cooperation between Japan and Australia has been meaningful, according to the officials.

Protected by British and Australian forces, as well as the Dutch military at an earlier stage, the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force troops provided humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, such as supplying purified water and medical aid, and building infrastructure in Samawah from early 2004 until last month.

The two countries began the FTA feasibility study last November and have since held four sessions. The fifth round is set for mid-September in Tokyo and they aim to issue a final report by the year-end, earlier than the originally scheduled spring of 2007, the officials said.

However, Japan’s farm sector is reluctant to sign an FTA with Australia because the country is a major exporter of beef, wheat and dairy products on which Tokyo imposes high tariffs to protect local farmers.

But Japan’s industry groups favour an FTA with Australia, which supplies vital resources to Japan, such as coal, iron ore and natural gas.

The two countries have been exploring ways to secure a stable energy supply from Australia to Japan during the study group sessions, the officials said.

More than half of Japan’s coal and iron ore imports come from Australia. Japan’s major exports to Australia include vehicles, auto parts and machinery equipment, according to government statistics.