Rushford: "When 'Free Trade' Isn't"

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Greg Rushford criticizes Japan’s pursuit of preferential trade in the WSJ:

Japan’s FTAs (like those of Americans and Europeans) talk free trade but practice protectionism. All of Tokyo’s trade bilaterals exclude Japanese rice, where tariffs remain in the stratosphere… The WTO’s Doha Round with its pressures for genuine market opening are conveniently ignored.

The FTA between Japan and Indonesia runs to 938 pages containing rules of origin, exclusions for politically sensitive products, and protectionist specifications for 40% of local content on “sensitive” — read, politically sensitive — products. There are special rules and various product exclusions for vegetables, sugar, various dairy products, fruits, tobacco and much else. Japan won’t cut tariffs for any kind of pineapples from Malaysia, Brunei or Singapore, but will gradually reduce duties for some fresh and dried pineapples from Thailand and the Philippines. But while tariffs on Thai dried pineapples are at 6% in the first year, and will be phased out entirely in six years, the Philippines’ dried pineapples will be taxed at 7.2% at first, and won’t be duty free until year 11.

This is special-interest politics, not sound economics. The Japanese boast that their FTAs give them preferential access to oil from Brunei, natural gas from Indonesia, and export platforms for Japanese manufacturers in smaller Asian economies. To readers of a certain age, this has a familiar ring.

While it’s premature to hit the panic button, it’s sure time to sound the alarms. It’s simply wrong for the world’s leading economies to act as if they want Fortresses Asia, Europe and America. It’s truly a cause for concern that while the WTO’s Doha Round gets lip service, FTAs get done.

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