A former New Zealand trade minister on Tuesday called on Japan to leave the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks if it cannot offer comprehensive tariff reductions.
Trade spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party, Phil Goff, who, as trade minister, had signed the bilateral free trade agreement with China in 2008, made the call as concerns mounted that New Zealand negotiators were preparing to cave in and agree an inferior TPP deal with few benefits for the country's pillar agriculture sector.
Current Trade Minister Tim Groser told Radio New Zealand earlier Tuesday that after the latest three-day round of talks in Australia at the weekend, a deal among the 12 TPP nations could be reached in the first quarter of next year.
"It's probably the most solid ministerial meeting I've attended in the last three years so we're within sight of a finish line, but that does not mean we are necessarily going to cross it successfully," Groser said.
New Zealand could still walk away from a deal if it excluded New Zealand's top export, dairy products, but he did not think that would happen, he said.
That appeared to contradict comments by Japanese TPP Minister Akira Amari in the Japanese media that the "finish line" was still not in sight for crucial bilateral talks with the United States on cutting tariffs on agricultural produce.
Goff said in a statement that it was important that the goal of a high quality and comprehensive agreement must not be "traded off to the detriment of New Zealand in the U.S.-Japan bilateral talks. "
"Japan was admitted to the negotiations on the basis of its agreement that the outcome of the negotiations would be high quality. If it can't meet that standard, then it should opt out of the talks," said Goff.
"Dairy is New Zealand's most important export product, which is why, in the Chinese and ASEAN free trade agreements negotiated when I was Trade Minister, a condition was set that tariffs on all our major exports be phased out completely over time," he said.
"Leaving tariffs on New Zealand agricultural exports is the equivalent of the agreement allowing trade barriers on a major Japanese export such as cars."
On Friday, agriculture industry leaders from New Zealand, Australia and Canada issued a joint call for negotiators to seal a trade deal with equal access across all 12 participating nations.
A critical element of a truly plurilateral agreement would be the comprehensive elimination of tariffs throughout the region, they said, adding that if TPP members provided select market access to some countries over others, regional supply chains might actually be worse off.
With a total population of 792 million people, the TPP region total GDP comprised almost 40 percent of the world's economy.
The 12 TPP negotiating countries are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
Secrecy surrounding the talks has provoked strong criticism and fears over incursions into national sovereignty.