DOGGED negotiations between Japan and Australia continued in Tokyo yesterday but failed to resolve issues with import tariffs on beef and dairy products in a likely free trade agreement (FTA).
Federal Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb and Japanese Farm Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, spoke to journalists after their meeting yesterday saying tough but positive talks were held.
But they also issued caution, warning that more discussions were needed before any trade agreement can be struck.
Speaking from Japan, Mr Robb told Fairfax Agricultural Media his meetings yesterday were held in good spirit with clear will on both sides.
But he said, “it is a tough negotiation and we are at the really difficult end”.
Mr Robb said important ground was still to be made up in regards to beef and dairy.
It’s understood Japan wants tariffs lifted on motor vehicle imports, while Australia is seeking to have Japan’s beef tariff more than halved.
Mr Robb – a former head of the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and Cattle Council of Australia - pushed a strong line in regards to Australian agricultural exports.
But like his counterpart, he did not make any comment on specifics of the actual talks.
Mr Robb also met with Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Trade Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and minister in charge of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Akira Amari.
His visit to Japan arrives with the NFF issuing a stern warning this week against any potential carve outs in FTAs which could disadvantage future trade for key commodities like beef or dairy.
NFF president Brent Finlay said his members had grave concerns about the Japan FTA deal which must be a good one for agriculture, not just for individual commodities.
He said if the Japan FTA wasn’t a good deal for Australian agriculture as a whole, there should be no deal at all.
“Our members are concerned that there will be potential carve-outs for certain commodities,” he said.
“If it’s not likely to be a good deal for all, it will not be supported by the industry.”
Mr Finlay said the tariff regime remained a “significant point of conjecture” within the Japan agreement.
“All sectors - wool, cotton, beef, pork, lamb, dairy, sugar, grains, horticulture and rice - must get improved market access,” he said.
“If the government is serious about agriculture being a pillar of the Australian economy, there needs to be a genuine commitment to deliver commercial results for our sector with trade deals.”
The NFF says speculation suggests an initial agreement would be struck when Prime Minister Tony Abbott meets his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo in April and agreement finalised later in the year, when Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, visits Australia.
Reports say Japan has proposed cutting its beef import tariffs from 38.5 per cent to about 30pc but the Australian government wants it at 19pc to provide greater access into the major beef export market, which imported 288,000 tonnes in 2013.
Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media this week, Mr Robb said beef was “a very important part” of negotiations with Japan.
He said he believed the opportunity to finalise trade deals with Japan and China were “now – because of the strong political will from both countries towards finalising a deal with Australia”.
“It’s important for our economic growth and for the future of our agricultural industry in the region,” he said.
“I know there is frustration surrounding the beef tariffs in these agreements, in particular with Japan, and I understand that frustration.
“However, we are seeking to be the first agricultural country to sign an economic partnership agreement with Japan and the fact that Japan has the political will to work with us, is ground breaking for the agricultural sector, including the beef sector.”
Mr Robb said Japan was “always going to be a tough negotiation” as they’ve never conceded any ground on rice, grain, sugar, dairy or beef in any previous trade negotiation.
He said as a former head of the NFF and executive director of the Cattle Council of Australia, “I know as well as anybody the importance of the beef industry”.
“I also understand their frustrations and I encourage them to go as hard as they can in calling for lower trade barriers because this opportunity is in the long-term interests of market access for Australian beef,” he said.