Momentum for US-free TPP grows as Japan takes leadership role
Trade ministers from 11 countries which agreed to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) will meet in Hanoi next month, as moves to resurrect the trade deal gather pace.
The election of US President Don Trump appeared to mark the death of the controversial trade deal, after he signed an executive order almost immediately pulling out of the 12 country agreement.
While New Zealand and Australia quickly called for support to press ahead without the US, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned in November that without the world's largest economy the TPP "has no meaning".
But Japan's position appears to have changed. On Thursday Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso gave a speech in New York confirming trade ministers from the other TPP countries would meet in May to discuss the deal, which he said offered more than bilateral trade negotiations.
New Zealand's Trade Minister Todd McClay said it was fair to characterise Japan as now taking a leadership role, among a group of countries including New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, which were "doing a bit more of the leg work".
"Japan is showing leadership around a common set of trade rules across the Pacific. New Zealand is very pleased to join them," McClay said on Friday.
The meeting in Hanoi would not lead to an agreement, but it was possible agreement might be reached by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam in November, McClay said.
Key aspects of the TPP, including rules around dispute resolution, copyright and state owned enterprises, were included because of the demands from the US.
Its absence may lead to demands for elements of the agreement to be renegotiated.
McClay said officials were still discussing how the agreement could go forward, before establishing potential sticking points.
While it was possible New Zealand could live with the current agreement, McClay said the potential for others to join later needed to be maintained.
"We want to make sure it's open for others to join. TPP was, whatever we do going forward would have to be," McClay said.
Former trade negotiator Charles Finny said New Zealand and Australia had already shown strong support for resurrecting the deal and Japan now appeared to be taking a leading role.
"It is less clear that Malaysia and Vietnam are willing to implement the TPP as negotiated without the United States being part of the agreement," Finny said.
Stephen Jacobi, executive director of the New Zealand International Business Forum, said Japan's statements could be motivated by concern that a bilateral trade deal with the United States could come with even greater demands than the TPP.
"It's going to be really difficult to keep the coalition together so the more big players who express confidence, the better," Jacobi said.
Japan was likely to harbour hopes the US would be convinced to rejoin the trade bloc, "but I don't think that will necessarily stop [Japan] implementing TPP."
Professor Jane Kelsey, a long time critic of the TPP negotiations and secrecy, said it would be even more difficult to justify the claimed benefits of the deal without the involvement of the US.
"The National Government needs to front up to New Zealanders and tell us what they are planning so they can be held accountable at the ballot box," Kelsey said. Pursuing the deal would ensure it became an election issue.
"They should not under-estimate the ongoing opposition to this deal, with or without the US. Secretive moves to resurrect it will fuel the fire," Kelsey said.