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Panel pushes 16-nation FTA in Asia, mulls boosting foreign workers

April 07, 2006

Panel pushes 16-nation FTA in Asia, mulls boosting foreign workers

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)

TOKYO, April 7 - (Kyodo) - A government policy-setting panel on Friday welcomed a proposal by the trade minister to launch negotiations between Japan and its 15 Asian neighbors to create a free trade zone, and discussed whether to accept more foreign workers amid the aging of society, economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano said.

Members of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, which is headed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, "highly appraised" the idea presented by Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai to start free trade talks with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand in 2008, he said.

The panel, which is scheduled to compile a global strategy in mid-May, also heard recommendations by its four private-sector members to relax conditions in allowing the entry of foreign workers with advanced skills and to review current regulations on accepting non-Japanese workers in such service sectors as nursing, the minister said.

The private-sector members include Toyota Motor Corp. Chairman Hiroshi Okuda and Ushio Inc. Chairman Jiro Ushio.

Justice Minister Seiken Sugiura and Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Jiro Kawasaki also presented papers on whether to increase the number of foreign workers in Japan.

In the papers, Sugiura pointed to a need to tighten immigration control and Kawasaki indicated possible disadvantages to be caused by the rise in foreign workers, such as deprivation of job opportunities for Japanese youth, increased social security costs to accommodate the foreigners and deterioration of public safety.

Koizumi told the panel meeting that Japan currently has an estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants and that the country should create the conditions to accept those who wish to work in Japan without major frictions, Yosano said.

The premier said it is "unavoidable" that some foreigners commit crimes in Japan when the total number of such workers is large and stressed that the creation of environments to better accommodate the non-Japanese workers is essential, according to Yosano.

At the meeting, Nikai also proposed that Japan should establish with its Asian neighbors a regional policy coordination body to be modeled after the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He also presented a roadmap for Japan’s policy on promoting free trade agreements to eventually create the 16-nation economic zone.

If realized, the region-wide FTA is estimated to push up Japan’s gross domestic product by 5 trillion yen and the GDP of the entire 16 economies by 25 trillion yen, according to Nikai’s paper.

All those measures suggested by the trade minister are designed to deepen Asian economic integration so that the region could rival the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement consisting of the United States, Canada and Mexico, government sources said.

Japan’s big FTA picture is also intended to let Tokyo lead the regional economic integration drive, in view of growing influence of China as a rapidly rising economic power in Asia, they said.

Earlier in the day, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Shoichi Nakagawa criticized the region-wide FTA plan, saying it was "abruptly" presented. He suggested that an expected increase in cheap farm produce imports to Japan as a result of an expanded FTA could damage the country’s agricultural sector.

 source: TMCnet