Is Japan Slowing Progress of the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

By Drew Wilson

The news surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been particularly slim lately. Normally, there’s some meeting or trade talk between leaders surrounding the agreement happening every other week, but the news has been dead quiet for some time. Now, we may have a plausible reason why things have been particularly silent on the matter.

We’ve been keeping close tabs on all the developments of the TPP. After someone expressed outrage that Obama didn’t mention the secretive agreement as a priority, things fell silent. It wasn’t because Kim Dotcom’s Mega and New Zealands three strikes law was soaking up the headlines in the technology and copyright discussion communities because there are so many other kinds of observers who have a lot to lose should this agreement come to pass. The answer for the silence on this topic may lie in Japan.

It’s not often a particular lack of news is newsworthy, but this may be one of those rare exceptions. What’s going on with the secretive TPP anyway? We’ve been looking for the last week or so, but there’s been next to nothing. Not an announcement to be had from a trade representative, not a comment from a negotiator, not a press release from pro-monopoly or pro multinational corporate blogs and not even a posting from an activist. Based on our experience, the silence is unusual – particularly for this length of time. So, we’ve been following a very cold trail trying to find some hint or a clue on what’s going on with the trade agreement.

After several days of searching around and researching, we stumbled across an article from Japanese news site Yomiuri. The article details Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe being unable to make a decision on whether or not Japan would formally join the TPP. From the article:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is facing challenges in handling the issue of Japan’s participation in the talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade framework.

While Abe hopes to express willingness to take part in the talks during a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama set for late this month, he is still wavering on the issue due to strong opposition from within his own Liberal Democratic Party.

In response to an interpellation at the House of Representatives Thursday, Abe said he has not yet determined when a decision will be reached, revising his earlier stance.

Two days earlier, while appearing on an NTV television program, Abe said he wanted to indicate the direction of his government’s stance ahead of the House of Councillors election this summer.

This is particularly interesting because, for those of us who have been following the Japanese angle of the TPP, this appears to be a continuation of a struggle that has been happening since at least 2011. Back then, when Japanese citizens learned about some of the leaked information for the TPP, people were outraged about what kind of concessions Japan would have to take to partake and ultimately agree to once the TPP was finalized. People, particularly the agricultural sector, took to the streets to protest against the possibility that Japan would even participate in such trade talks. Now, it appears that the pressure to not move forward on this is still having an impact politically in the country.

With this element in mind, it could go a long way in providing a possible scenario for the status of the TPP at this stage. If, indeed, Japan’s hesitation to join the TPP is slowing the process, then some of the moves by others in the negotiations make a lot more sense.

US President Barack Obama didn’t mention the TPP as a priority back in mid January. If the Obama administration was concerned about Japan’s hesitation, the ideal move would be to not say anything at all if the ultimate goal was to include Japan at the negotiating table. It’s extremely difficult to even think of what could be said to encourage Japan to join the agreement without appearing to be impatient. So, by simply saying that other things are a priority at that moment would give TPP supporters in Japan ample leeway to try and make a case for joining. Indeed, there is interest in some corners of Japan to join the TPP in the first place, but with such strong opposition, the decision is certainly complicated. When Japan makes a decision, it’s not implausible that more movement will be seen on this issue.

While that might explain why there is little movement from the political administration side, that doesn’t explain why the media has been so quiet on this file. An explanation for that is that this delay, for most media outlets, might be seen as simply a domestic issue for Japan to resolve. There’s no direct connection from a technological perspective, so there is no reports out on this agreement from any technology based news sites (minus this one of course).

It’s extremely unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure if the radio silence is the result of Japanese hesitation, but if it is the case, this is extremely good news for anyone who isn’t the CEO of a multi-national corporation because any delay in this agreement give things like sovereignty and Internet freedom more time to stay as healthy as they are. In short, Japanese opposition is buying everyone else more time.

A plausible working theory at any rate.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85

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