‘We don’t know what Canada wants’: Japanese chorus of confusion grows over Trudeau’s TPP position

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Japan’s former ambassador to Canada has added his voice to those concerned that confusion over Ottawa’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership could affect the relationship between the two countries.

>>TPP gets new lease on life

Canada did not attend TPP-11 meeting last month

At last month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, Trudeau’s decision not to attend a meeting of leaders of the 11 countries negotiating the trade deal – a meeting which the other countries expected would finalize an agreement in principle — “grated on Japanese sensitivities,” said Sadaaki Numata, formerly Japan’s top diplomat in Canada and an advisor to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce Japan. And he said it has put the relationship into a holding pattern, with the Japanese waiting for an indication that Canada is still interested in moving forward with the deal.

“I am concerned that what happened recently might lead to a stasis in our relationship and that’s not good, that would not be very encouraging,” Numata said. “Certainly (Trudeau) may have been able to avoid a situation where people would call Canada’s attitude as something ‘unpredictable.’ … It’s true that the word ‘unpredictability’ is used in relation to (U.S. president) Donald Trump.”

Trump’s withdrawal early in 2017 from the original group of 12 nations negotiating the TPP seemed to have buried the trade pact until the spring, when Japan, with support from Canada, resurrected talks focused on forging a deal without the United States.

Trudeau’s decision not to attend a meeting of leaders of the 11 countries (via Cannabis News Box)

“We don’t know what Canada wants”

Until the APEC incident, negotiators perceived that things were going smoothly, said Mitsuru Myochin, a counsellor with the Japanese government’s TPP team. “We still do not know why Canada changed their attitude,” he said.

In the weeks leading up to the summit, the Canadian government had signalled to the country’s media that a deal in Vietnam was by no means assured, and in the wake of the leaders’ meeting he didn’t attend, Trudeau told Canadian reporters his reluctance to commit “should (have) come as no surprise and it actually didn’t come as a surprise to people who’d noticed that I was saying that and have been saying that all week.”

According to Japanese observers, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may not have been among them. “The prime minister was quite upset, from what I understand,” said Shujiro Urata, a trade expert at Waseda University. “And I think he has a reason to be moody.”

Ichiro Hara, director of the international affairs bureau at Keidanren, Japan’s business federation, said he spoke with an official who was inside the room for the meeting between Trudeau and Abe in which, immediately before the sit-down scheduled for all 11 leaders, Trudeau voiced his reservations.

“Prime Minister Trudeau said, ‘No, no, we cannot get on board. We still have problems.’ And what is the problem? There was no clear answer,” Hara said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (via Wikipedia)

The 11 countries still walked away from Vietnam with an agreement in principle on a Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership — the deal renamed per a request from Canada — that included reference to four outstanding issues.

Protection for Canadian cultural industries is one of four issues preventing the deal’s finalization. But observers in Tokyo are perplexed as to what is actually being demanded. Canadian negotiators did not raise the issue until the “late stages” of negotiation, Myochin said Thursday. Some exemptions for cultural industries were already written into relevant chapters of the TPP but Canada is seeking something broader than that. The specific solution being proposed to accomplish this remains unclear even to close observers.

Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam each have specific complaints, as well, with the last one boiling down to a bilateral dispute settlement issue. “The difference is that we know where is the problem that exists between Mexico and Vietnam. As for Canada we don’t know yet,” said Hara, calling Canada a “big question mark.”

Urata echoed that. “We don’t know what Canada wants,” he said, adding he too sees it as a “question mark.”

Asked what negotiators’ understanding of Canada’s demands are, Myochin wouldn’t comment. “All I can say at this time is that the demander should explain the details of their own request,” he said.

Canada has concerns over the automobile industry, too, but as Urata noted, in the CPTPP agreement partners committed not to touch the original TPP’s provisions on market access.

While all emphasized a strong desire to keep Canadians in the loop, foreign officials indicated earlier this week that a deal excluding Canada is not impossible.

“That is not what we would like to see but the possibility (of signing without Canada) cannot be ruled out,” Hara said.

Myochin was cautious when asked whether this could be an outcome. “I don’t want to say any decisive thing about the future situation,” he said.

‘We don’t know what Canada wants’: Japanese chorus of confusion grows over Trudeau’s TPP position (via Financial Post)

All countries agreed in Vietnam on the language of bringing CPTPP into force “expeditiously,” Myochin noted. “We believe that Canada shares the same spirit and sense of timeline.”

That hasn’t come across in statements from the Canadian government, however. Shortly after foreign officials agreed to such language, with Trudeau’s approval, their statement to the press indicated Canada “will not be rushed” and a Canadian official repeated earlier this week they “will take whatever time is necessary to reach the optimal outcome.”

None of the four outstanding issues have been addressed in face-to-face meetings, Myochin confirmed, though “we are intensely working.” The details of a meeting of chief negotiators, expected for January, have not been finalized. 

Still, it is “not impossible” to conclude the CPTPP as early as next month, he said — if all partners want to do so.

After translation, legal scrubbing and a ministerial signing, countries would initiate domestic procedures of ratification. Although Japan ratified the original TPP it would need to legislate again for CPTPP. Canada need only do the latter.

Once at least six out of 11 countries ratified it, the deal would enter into force among them. Japan is hoping this will happen in 2019, Urata said.

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