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Japan panel urges steps to speed free trade accords

December 20, 2004

Japan panel urges steps to speed free trade accords

TOKYO, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Japan needs to work on loosening restrictions in domestic agriculture and labour and to work effectively to more swiftly forge free trade agreements (FTAs), the government’s top advisory panel said on Monday.

The Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (CEFP) began broad discussions on how to more effectively carry out Japan’s aim of sealing more agreements, especially as it attempts to catch up with China and South Korea, which are also working on forging FTAs with other neighbouring countries.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told the meeting that he did not find it necessary to appoint a separate minister in charge of FTA negotiations, Economics Minister Heizo Takenaka told a news conference.

Japanese business executives have been urging the government to move faster on FTAs as a way to help ease the entry of needed foreign labourers.

But the government has been slow to open the door to foreign workers due to fears it could hurt domestic workers’ wages, in addition to worries about security.

Japan and the Philippines clinched an FTA in November that includes letting a small number of nurses into Japan to help with a shortage.

Agricultural issues have also been a roadblock to sealing FTAs, with politicians keen to protect domestic farmers, who form a strong constituency.

Wrangling among various ministries has also slowed the process.

Private-sector members of the panel proposed reviewing regulations on agriculture and labour as a way to facilitate FTAs.

"The government should work as one to promote FTAs, while working on domestic structural reforms for agriculture and the flow of people," the members said in a statement presented to the meeting.

They also called on the government to streamline negotiation procedures.

The CEFP plans to flesh out its proposals to be included in a basic agenda of government policy for 2005.

Japan is in talks with Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea on bilateral FTAs. It also plans to seal an agreement with the 10-nation ASEAN bloc (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) by 2012 and ASEAN plus Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam by 2017.

Japan has also concluded FTAs with Singapore and Mexico.

 source: Reuters