OPINION: It's easy to slouch in your seat and let your eyes glaze over whenever the words "free trade" and "summit" appear in the same sentence. And that's just for the participants.
Sure, the alphabet soup of our attempts to open trade with the world - Apec, TPP, Nafta - and the geography tour of the obscure that the Uruguay and Doha rounds were are seen by most as central to our future prosperity . . . give or take a book or three by free trade sceptic Professor Jane Kelsey.
Her latest offering, No Ordinary Deal, out this week to coincide with the 18th round of Apec talks in Japan, pulls together the views of 19 writers and includes warnings about the implications of the multilateral Trans Pacific Partnership -TPP for short - to "national sovereignty, democracy and indigenous self-determination".
On the political front there is, of course, a grand coalition of National and Labour in favour of free trade, with only the Greens - and to a lesser extent NZ First and the Maori Party - expressing significant reservations.
So when Prime Minister John Key touched down in Tokyo overnight he was just another in a long line of New Zealand leaders to put the case for free trade, and especially for the orphan of world trade talks, agriculture.
It will be a team effort, though. Finance Minister Bill English is just back from the finance ministers' session and, while he made the ritual pronouncements about the importance of the event as another in the "rolling maul of consensus building", the fatigue was obvious in his voice.
He freely admits to not being an enthusiastic summiteer. There might be, he even ventured (Go Bill!), too many of these high-level talkfests. His opposite number in Australia, Wayne Swan, has apparently spent something like seven weeks out of the past nine on the road at such events.
With Mr Key will be Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who seems almost detached compared to the machinegun enthusiasm of Trade Minister Tim Groser - an old pro on the trade circuit who can swim in the seemingly limitless ocean of acronyms and still see land on the other side.
But for mere mortals, a handful of touchstones can help unscramble the news that will flow out of Yokohama this week.
Apec. A group of 21 Asian and Pacific "economies" (Taiwan is not a country to China, and Hong Kong is a player in its own right) representing about 44 per cent of world trade. It is a forum to discuss economic issues and free trade but at times struggles for relevance (see Bogor goals).
The Bogor goals. The meeting this weekend will report on progress on the promise set in Bogor, Indonesia, in 1994 that developed nations, including New Zealand and Japan, would have fully opened to free trade and investment by 2010. They haven't. Japan, which lags on free trade and struggles to convince its rural sector (average age of farmers 67.5 years), wants to say there has been good progress. New Zealand, which freely admits it has fallen short, does not want Japan to gloss over its failure.
The TPP. Originally a relatively obscure free trade deal between New Zealand, Chile, Brunei and Singapore called the P4, it was embraced at last year's Apec meeting by US President Barack Obama as the priority for a broad FTA and now has nine countries in talks. It is fast shaping as the proxy for the sort of region-wide deal Apec was set up to achieve.
Even the Chinese are apparently interested. But its ambitious aim to strike a comprehensive deal by 2011 has spooked Japan (see Bogor goals). The Japanese have this week agreed to join preliminary consultations on the TPP grouping, without committing to join up, pending further domestic debate (um . . . see Bogor goals). Japan is scared of being left out, especially if China joins, but it seems equally scared of being in the TPP.
The Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). A sort of alternative to the TPP with no end date in mind (though 2020 has been mooted). That makes it very appealing to Japan (see Bogor goals). A leaked copy of the Apec Leaders' Declaration indicated that Apec would call for "concrete steps towards the FTAAP" and suggest that Apec turns from a talkfest into a negotiating forum. (Rule 1 of all Apec meetings: the draft declaration is always strategically leaked before the summit but everyone pretends to be surprised and interested when it is officially released.)
Those such as New Zealand that want to get free trade moving argue the voluntary and consensus-syle approach of Apec is useful to set frameworks but is not the right forum for binding negotiations. (At this point you might like to look at the section marked Bogor goals.) New Zealand also fears the FTAAP would be unwieldy, slow to reach agreement and involve too many compromises with so many countries involved.
Success. For Mr Key success would be good progress towards a TPP. But whatever comes out of the meeting, everyone will claim success and the final worthy wording of the declaration will be so opaque they might all be right.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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