Bill English heads to Japan amid efforts to rescue something from the TPP deal
Prime Minister Bill English heads to Japan on Tuesday for trade talks set to be dominated by attempts to breath life into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, including hopes for a smaller grouping now the United States has pulled out.
The Government formally ratified the TPP last week in solidarity with Japan - the only other among the original 12 nation bloc to ratify the trade deal.
Trade Minister Todd McClay arrived in Tokyo on Sunday, his second visit to Japan and his fifth meeting at trade minister level.
He will help prepare the way for English's visit amid signs that not just a TPP 11 is on the cards, but that an even smaller - interim - five-nation group could create a sort of "son of TPP" that others can join when they are ready.
The five likely players are New Zealand, Brunei, Singapore, Japan and Australia.
The first three were part of the P4 - along with Chile - which was seized on by former US president Barack Obama to form the basis for TPP. Chile, however, is much more closely linked by trade to the US and the Americas.
The options for the remaining 11 nations are to press ahead with the current set of agreed rules or to renegotiate, although the latter is not favoured in Wellington. Officials are doing detailed work on how to press ahead without the US.
During his three-day trip, English will hold talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with New Zealand keen to secure the benefits of freer trade access to Japan, the third biggest consumer market in the world, either as part of the TPP or - much less likely - a bilateral free trade deal.
While New Zealand has important trade deals in the region, notably with China and Australia, the TPP would have added five countries that are not covered by existing FTAs; Japan, the US, Canada, Mexico and Peru.
Japan has some very restrictive tariffs on New Zealand's main exports, and the TPP offered big advantages in dairy and other exports.
In one area in particular - beef - Australia's FTA with Japan gives it a clear competitive advantage. It faces tariffs of just 27 per cent against 38.5 per cent on New Zealand product.
A Japan-EU deal is also in the wings and there are fears tariffs for EU exports would fall to the levels won by Australia.
Trade Minister Todd McClay has said the Cabinet decision to ratify the TPP showed "leadership with Japan" in establishing a common set of high-quality rules across the Asia-Pacific.
However, concerns about North Korea's continued testing of missiles, the most recent on Sunday, will also be on the agenda when English meets his counterpart.
English said he was looking forward to meeting Abe and discussing a wide range of issues, including trade and security, and initiatives in the areas of food, education, sport and defence.
The talks come as APEC trade ministers prepare to meet in Vietnam later this week, where McClay will co-chair a meeting of TPP ministers that are likely to endorse efforts to keep the TPP alive.
A business delegation accompanying him includes senior figures from primary industry and technology, as well as NZ Rugby Union chair Steve Tew.
An announcement is expected to "leverage" business opportunities from New Zealand's strength in rugby with the Rugby World Cup to be held in Japan in 2019.
On Thursday, English will head to Hong Kong for talks with Chief Executive CY Leung and incoming Chief Executive Carrie Lam.