May 18, 2017 6:00 am JST

New Zealand leads push to keep TPP alive

Wellington, Tokyo see no need to change terms after US withdrawal

KAORI TAKAHASHI, Nikkei staff writer

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English

TOKYO -- New Zealand aims to avoid reworking the Trans-Pacific Partnership in resurrecting the trade pact without the U.S., both to avoid a lengthy renegotiation and to leave the door open in case Washington returns, Prime Minister Bill English said.

The U.S. withdrew from the TPP in January, sounding the death knell for the original 12-member agreement. But New Zealand and Japan are leading the way for a so-called TPP 11 to ensure quality trade standards for the Asia-Pacific region even without American involvement, English told The Nikkei in an interview Wednesday. He is in Tokyo for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

New Zealand, one of the four members of the original TPP, has taken "an active role in talking to the other 10 countries to test their will and interest in moving forward with TPP 11" since the U.S. pulled out, English said. The country is prepared to accept the "terms of the agreement as they were negotiated so we can move forward," he pledged. The original document and various addenda clock in at 1,500 pages or so, and took five and a half years to negotiate. Attempting to rebuild the agreement from the ground up would bring progress to a standstill.

"Every country has got some issues where it would like to renegotiate, and so we don't believe it's a good path forward," he said. Ideally, the parties would make "only the technical changes necessary to allow [for] the fact that the U.S. isn't part" of TPP 11, the prime minister said.

Even with America out of the picture, "if we can have a trade agreement that engages ... the Japanese economy and we can continue the dynamism of more free trade in the region, then we're all going to benefit economically," according to English.

New boss

Both New Zealand and Japan "have ratified TPP, which I think indicates the leadership role that the two countries can take," English said. Australia is also eager to move the deal forward. Japan is of the same mind as New Zealand as far as revisions go: "Leaving the content untouched is the realistic way to bring [the pact] into effect with 11 nations," a government source said.

Trade ministers from the remaining TPP nations will meet in Vietnam on Sunday. "I hope that they have a collective will to proceed," English said.

The prime minister left the door open for the U.S. to return to the project later on. "We would certainly hope they would come back later," he said, noting the agreement likely "would be pretty attractive to them without" major changes.

There is "certainly sufficient interest in open borders and free trade [in the U.S.] to indicate that [the pact] may be considered in the future," he said. Japan believes moving ahead with TPP 11 makes that outcome more likely, and will consider measures to pave the way for a U.S. return.

For now, the challenge is convincing countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia -- for whom access to American markets was a major selling point of the TPP -- that the agreement is still worth pursuing, particularly as it stands. These nations pushed through unpopular policies such as state enterprise reform to be able to participate in the pact, and have made noises about demanding revisions.

The notion of an even smaller TPP has been floated, and the prospects remain hazy for TPP 11. Trying to get reluctant participants excited about the U.S.-less pact still seems to be the best bet.

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