Can Nishikawa resolve Japan’s TPP agricultural impasse?

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW Canberra

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s appointment of Koya Nishikawa as the new Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) is a big plus for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Nishikawa is an executive of the so-called ‘agricultural tribe’ (norin zoku) in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). While this suggests to some that he will hold out to the last on the issue of opening Japan’s agricultural markets, Nishikawa may not act as expected.

Newly appointed Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Koya Nishikawa speaks during a press conference at the official residence of the Japanese prime minister in Tokyo, 3 September 2014. (Photo: AAP)

Nishikawa’s appointment as MAFF Minister is a sign that the prime minister is serious about finding a way of resolving the TPP impasse. What Abe has done is essentially repeat what he did just after the LDP returned to power in December 2012. On 1 January 2013, he discussed how to prepare the party for participating in the TPP negotiations. The first person he telephoned was Nishikawa, whom he then appointed as chairman of the LDP’s TPP Affairs Committee. Abe’s strategy was to fight fire with fire, explaining his move as ‘fighting tribe Diet members (zoku) with a tribe Diet member (zoku)’.

Abe spent much of his period in the political wilderness (between his first and second stints as prime minister) devoting his time to researching the personnel affairs of former prime ministers Eisaku Sato and Yasuhiro Nakasone who both maintained long-term administrations based on skilful personnel management. As a result of his research he found the ‘solution’ for dealing with the TPP. Abe decided to use an anti-TPP figure to suppress other anti-TPP members.

Nishikawa is well qualified for the task. As well as being a long-standing member of the LDP’s norin zoku he has previously represented the LDP in WTO agricultural trade negotiations. More importantly, he made a good impression on Abe when he was Senior Vice-Minister of the Cabinet Office in charge of postal privatisation under then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. In that role, he used his considerable powers of persuasion to bring LDP Diet members who were opposed to privatisation on side. Then in his role as chairman of the LDP’s TPP Affairs Committee, he delivered for Abe by effectively coordinating the consensus in the party that enabled Abe to announce the decision on joining the TPP talks.

Nishikawa remained responsible for intraparty coordination on the TPP issue, which meant deciding the LDP’s TPP policy. For example, the TPP Affairs Committee determined which agricultural items should be exempt from tariff elimination in the TPP negotiations — the so-called ‘sacred five’: rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar. Its March 2013 resolution stated that Japan should pull out of the TPP negotiations unless it could retain the tariffs on these items.

As Abe’s trusted appointee, Nishikawa continued to act as the primary go-between for Abe on TPP issues and to report directly back to him as party president — saying ‘the prime minister gave me the role of keeping the party under control’. He gained a reputation for putting a lot of energy into moving the TPP negotiations forward in the interests of the prime minister. He ran foul of the anti-TPP group in the party by showing flexibility on the issue of abolishing tariffs on the five ‘sensitive products’ in Bali in October 2013. He told reporters that the LDP was planning to study the possibility of eliminating tariffs on some of the sensitive items.

Nishikawa also caused waves in the talks inside the LDP on reform of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA), going all out to support the LDP’s reform proposal and issuing a strong verbal rebuke to Diet member Yoshio Kimura who accused him (and others) of trying to use JA reforms to make up for the fact that they hadn’t done well on the TPP. He shouted at Kimura, ‘we are doing well [on the TPP]. What are you talking about, you juvenile’. When Nishikawa bumped into Akira Banzai, head of the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA-Zenchu, JA’s independent administrative body) in May 2014, he said to him, ‘the JA is always complaining; can’t you show some appreciation?’.

In March 2013, the Nikkei reported Nishikawa as questioning whether the agricultural cooperatives had been a positive influence in the agricultural sector, and asserting that the government should implement drastic agricultural reform measures taking advantage of Japan’s participation in the TPP.

Nishikawa firmly believes that Japanese agriculture needs reform and that trade liberalisation is inevitable. In that light, he has been on a mission to find a middle way between the agricultural protectionist diehards on the one hand and those who support Japan’s entry into the TPP on the other. He wants to conclude the US–Japan TPP talks because he backs the TPP as being in Japan’s national interest.

Earlier this year, he reportedly said that ‘Japan will only accept numbers for tariff rates on sensitive agricultural products that will allow us to keep our promises with the people. Even if the United States adopts a hardline position, we will do just the same’. These remarks show that Nishikawa remains sound on political fundamentals but is flexible on details in order to move negotiations forward. He presents a tough face to both sides and is not afraid of confrontation. At this point, he is eager to conclude the TPP talks even if it means accepting tariff cuts on some of the five sacred products.

Reassured by Abe that his cabinet will protect Japan’s agriculture and farm villages in the TPP negotiations, Nishikawa has now been rewarded by Abe for taking a positive stance towards reform. He certainly disagrees with the new appointee to the party’s highest policy office, Tomomi Inada. She was once quoted as saying: ‘The destination of the TPP bus is the graveyard of Japanese civilisation’.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

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