Tag Archives: FTA

Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul Chat Chummily About An FTA

Despite the diplomatic tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea, trilateral talks between China, Japan and South Korea on setting up a Northeast Asia free-trade agreement (FTA) are continuing. The second round of working talks among officials from the three countries was held this week in Qingdao. The goal remains to start the formal negotiations on the agreement by the end of this year.

As is always the case with free trade agreements there are plenty of potential pitfalls ahead as domestic vested interests rear their heads. One example is Japan’s farmers who have stalled a mooted bilateral deal between Tokyo and Seoul for almost a decade. But Tokyo won’t want to be cut out if Seoul and Beijing  complete their proposed bilateral deal. Nor will Beijing want to do anything to drive Tokyo towards the Washington-led TransPacific Partnership.

The three countries are already closely tied by trade and investment as well as physical proximity. No matter how rough the diplomatic waters between the three get, all have an interest in plainer sailing on trade.

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Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul To Start Formal Free Trade Pact Talks

As regular readers will know, we have been following the progress on a potential free trade agreement between China, South Korea and Japan for some time–and the shadow play for economic influence in the Asia-Pacific region being acted out through trade agreements by Beijing and Washington. The leaders of the three Asian neighbors have now agreed to start formal negotiations. We thought it timely to republish our post from last December.

China, Japan and South Korea have been discussing creating a free-trade zone for some years. Every time their leaders meet, in pairs or collectively, the language used to describe progress is increasingly purposeful. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his visiting Japanese counterpart, Yoshihiko Noda, now say the discussions have reached the point where formal negotiations could start next year.

The three countries are already closely tied by trade and investment as well as physical proximity. Japan and South Korea are China’s largest trade partners after the U.S. and the E.U. The agreement to settle yuan-yen trade currency conversions directly, also announced during Noda’s visit, will only help boost economic ties.

Similarly Beijing’s approval for the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (the old Ex-Im Bank) to issue yuan-denominated bonds in China–a first for a foreign government agency– and Tokyo’s plan to hold a small amount of Chinese government bonds in its official reserves support the internationalization of the yuan, and thus provide a growing alternative to the dollar as the working currency of any trilateral free-trade zone.

Those existing and coming economic links make it more likely that a free trade agreement can be stuck between the three before agreement is reached on setting up the much larger proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the U.S. now wants to join and promote but from which China is being excluded. Indeed the TPP may have provided some impetus to China, Japan and South Korea’s discussions. Together the trio account for 16% of world GDP, so a free trade agreement between them would create a formidable bloc just by dint of their economic size alone.

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China And The U.S. Play Free Trade Chess

Free trade agreements (FTAs) are easier said than done. U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged as much when announcing an outline agreement to expand the TransPacific Partnership from four to nine as a basis for a regional FTA. There is much detail to be negotiated. It will take years, not months. Many devils must be confronted.

For one, Obama’s domestic opponents are not going to hand him a political and economic victory with a general election barely a year away. Even in the highly unlikely event a final TTP agreement could be reached quickly, a Republican-dominated House of Representatives could block a vote for Congressional approval before the election. Nor are Republicans likely to allow an agreement containing what Obama called ‘high standards’, code for among others environmental and labor protections and local sustainability rights that are an anathema to many of Obama’s opponents.

All those are the quick and dirty domestic political battles. Japan’s decision to join promises a hundred years war. Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has risked splitting his party in doing so. He will now need to turn the country’s three most powerful and insular domestic political constituencies, farmers, doctors and the construction industry. Doing so would mean a deep structural change to Japan’s political system. That may be long overdue, but it will not be quick in coming. That alone should not imbue supporters of the expanded TTP FTA with great confidence. Nor should the rapid turnover of recent Japanese prime ministers. Noda is the sixth in five years.

It is already two years since the U.S. applied to join the four-member TTP and started to orchestrate its expansion to nine, including bringing in its two most important treaty partners in the region, South Korea and Japan, as well as regional allies such as Thailand. There have already been nine rounds of TTP expansion negotiations. These are painstaking processes.

The Obama administration’s move was part a a bigger game of FTA chess that it is playing with China for influence in the region. Washington is playing the APEC side of the board while Beijing is playing the ASEAN side. (The side story for those choices is that the Asia-Pacific Economic Community is a group of economies, so can include Taiwan, whereas the Association of South-East Asian Nations comprises countries, so does not. Taipei has expressed interest in joining the TTP FTA, and while Washington has been scrupulously silent on the point, the absence of any outright rejection is being taken in Beijing as unacceptable tacit support.)

Beijing, meanwhile, has been doing what it can to slow up the TTP expansion, and pushing a series of bilateral trade agreement with ASEAN nations and the concepts of regional trade pacts between ASEAN plus three (itself, South Korea and Japan) and ASEAN plus six (adding Australia, New Zealand and India). The U.S. is notable by its absence. Hence Washington’s attempts to involve all the same countries, with the one obvious exception, to much the same purpose but under the aegis of APEC.

This is not necessarily disliked by most Asian countries as it allows them to keep both regional superpowers from being too dominant as they jockey for supremacy. The most extreme example of this is that both China and the U.S. are trying to create trilateral free trade agreements with South Korea and Japan. Two tracks. Double the trouble. And any end game still a long way off.

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