Japan targets India for increased trade

By Shalini Bhutani

Japan is a user country that needs to access biological resources from others for its bio-trade.

Japan seems to be written all over India’s official calendars. The commerce minister was in Tokyo in early September after agreeing ‘in principle’ to an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with Japan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be in Tokyo in October to sign that deal once the Cabinet clears it.

A Ministry of Environment and Forest delegation is also preparing to go to Japan (Nagoya) in October to attend the next big conference of the Convention of Biodiversity (CBD). With the above trips, the bilateral dealings with Japan as well as trade and biodiversity are high on the agenda. Let’s just take a look at Japan’s treatment of both.

Till the late 1990s, Japan’s trade policy was single-mindedly focused on the World Trade Organisation as a means for global trade. There has been a shift in the Japanese government position towards a ‘multi-layered trade’ approach through bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs). Nippon Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organisations) comprising 1,300 companies and 130 industrial sector associations is behind both approaches. Trade and business interests determine the course.

The Japanese government announced a new growth strategy in December 2009, which was approved by its cabinet in June 2010. It expressly states “Achieving growth by pioneering new frontiers,” as one of Japan’s strategic focus areas. This includes increasing trade with other Asian countries, India being just one of them.

Regional integration

The Japan-Singapore FTA (2002) was the first such bilateral for Japan. It has also inked an EPA with the 10-member Asean (2007). Japan is also pushing India and others into a 16-country regional integration initiative of comprehensive economic partnership in East Asia. Its strategy also targets a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific by 2020. The India side seems only to be reacting in response than pro-actively defining its own strategy. And to develop one, Japan’s approach to biological resources has to be located within the context of its aggressive economic strategies.

Japan, hosting the CBD’s tenth conference doesn’t really have a respectable track record on biodiversity conservation. See for instance, its practices of unsustainable whaling and dumping wastes in other countries.

In the 1990s, the Japanese cosmetics MNC Shiseido patented over 10 compounds from Indonesian traditional medical system Jamu. In 2002, Cupuaçu — an Amazonian fruit, was registered as a trademark in Japan by the Asahi Foods company. It took legal activism from NGOs and campaigns from local people to challenge these at patent offices.

The main agenda of COP 10 is to negotiate an international regime on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS). Over 193 countries have to agree on the draft text on the table, to convince bio-rich countries like India that such cases will not occur in future.

Japan – a leading technology hub, is a user country that needs to access biological resources from others for its bio-trade. So it has a vested interest to show that ABS regimes can work for local communities. That also explains why its nodal agency for ABS to implement CBD objectives, is its ministry economy, trade and industry.

The same portfolio in India is held by the MoEF. In 2005, Japan developed ‘guidelines on access to genetic resources for users in Japan’ as a practical guide for its private sector and research institutes. Japan is heavily investing in the PR to come across as a country that is committed to share the benefits it reaps from others bio-resources.

In real time however, in its FTAs with Malayasia, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, intellectual property rights (IPR) on seeds were on the negotiating table.

Seeking private monopoly rights over biological resources goes against the intention to share benefits.

India too has been the focus of Japanese biodiversity diplomacy. The Japan Bioindustry Association (JBA) has been ‘helping’ the MoEF to develop India’s ABS regime. Japan has a keen interest in agricultural and medical biotechnology, and India’s ministry of commerce has been luring foreign investors highlighting India’s biotech strengths. India’s biological resources are on that menu.

The Indian people don’t even know what has been agreed to under the EPA, as the negotiations and the text remain closed. Meanwhile, an India-Japan global partnership summit is scheduled in mid-December 2010 in Tokyo. Our politicians and Indian businesses may have found Nippon partners. And like delicately cut and beautifully plated sashimi, the Japanese platter might make for them a pretty picture. But if its raw in the inside it is not going to go down well with many an Indian palette. And for those not invited to the party and for that matter otherwise too, nothing smells more than bits of leftover fish!


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