Thursday, 26 June 2014

Getting the big ideas right in the Middle East

Iraq’s current struggle with the terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is probably best understood in the context of Islam’s story of running headlong into modernity. The question is what will modernity look like for this great monotheism?

The Arab Islamic world – the dynamics of which have been kept frozen since the First World War – began to thaw during the Arab Spring of 2011. Artificial lines and real tension, created first by Western imperialist powers, muddled by the Cold War, then stunted by autocracies, suddenly had all the corks in all the bottles pulled at once in 2011.

As a result, the Middle East remains the Western world’s centre of foreign policy. Intelligent people now call for troops to be sent back into the region, but the big ideas are still not being well understood.

Our power to change this region has proven to be highly constrained for outside powers since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. A fundamental reason for this lies back in the 17th Century.

During Europe’s 30 Years War – ending in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia – the decision was made that although there were plenty of things over which the Christian west could kill one another, did not need to keep religion on that list.

Broadly speaking, our decision was to separate the sacred from the secular when it came to fighting about society. This set our civilisation firmly on the path to true science and secularism. Islam went one way and Christianity went the other.

But is this arc unique to Christianity, or is it actually a predictable arc along which all the great monotheisms will travel? In other words, will Islam get to the same place?

Of course Islam doesn’t have to get to the same place and it certainly doesn’t need to get there for everyone to be safe, but it’s an interesting question. The late Pope Benedict got himself into trouble saying that Islam was a much more transcendental religion than Christianity and maybe it wouldn’t travel the arc.

If Islam is so transcendental, are we shouting into the wind expecting them to separate the secular and the sacred?

All three monotheisms emerged from the same desert with the same mysticism. But Christianity was translated through Aristotle as it moved into Europe. You cannot point to a Summa Theologica in the Islamic world where there was the marriage of Aristotelian logic with faith.

On the other hand, some the most fundamentalist of Islamic believers say putting an intermediary between the creature and the creator is itself sacrilegious: so what’s all this talk about voting, they ask?
Western militaries have approached the issue in the only way they know how: by dividing their battles into the close fight and the deep fight.

The close fight deals with people already convinced to do you harm. The deep fight has more to do with the production rate of such people in three or five years.

The close/deep fight dynamic appeared during the Cold War. It wasn’t as kinetic as the last decade, but the framework was much the same. The close fight then was the British Army on the Rhine and the American Marine Corp outside the Fulda Gap, holding their positions.

An armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft sits in a shelter at 
Joint Base Balad, Iraq, before a mission in 2008. 
(Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson / Air Force

The deep fight in the Cold War was largely ideological. It was painting the Soviet system as a flawed theory of history and an even dumber system of government: just don’t let them expand because their internal inconsistencies will cause them to collapse eventually.

Translate that to the current war. The US and its allies have done very well on the close fight. The invasion of Afghanistan for its original purposes was an undeniable triumph. And the work of the CIA in removing terrorists from the battlefield was an unarguable success.

The US “drone” campaign radicalised many Islamists, but it also heavily constrained terror groups. There is a cost/benefit rationalisation in the decision to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and it has become the best way to fight the threat.

Generally, only the most capable terrorists are targeted. Effective terrorist tradecraft is not learned overnight and the lack of high-quality international attacks in the recent past, despite the large numbers of committed terrorists, suggests the close fight has been an enormous success.

But the west’s ability to influence the deep fight has been very limited. We were convinced that we needed to do something deep, but it was hard to figure out what it was.

The production rate is a tough thing to crack. It’s still ideological, but it’s an ideology about which Westerners have very little legitimacy to argue. For a Westerner to talk about the meaning of the Koran, or the significance of one or another passage out of the Hadith is to turn our argument into dust by the very uttering of it.

What is happening in Iraq is the result not simply of Western interference, but because Islam still struggles to reconcile the sacred and the secular.

The endgame of this struggle doesn’t have to mirror the Christian arc, and it will clearly take a long time to sort out. But the worst thing international powers can do now is put their thumbs on the scale without understanding the narrative underlying the entire region.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The emerging alliance of Turkey, Iran and the United States

The only way to get US President Barack Obama to complete his "pivot" to Asia is to hope for an economic and strategic alliance between the United States, Turkey and Iran. Don't believe me? Read on and see for yourself. Ahead of the planned nuclear talks in Vienna on July 20 between Iran and western powers, the Middle East is once again immolating at a startling rate. This time around, three starkly different countries are finding their interests align in a bizarre, and unlikely, way.

The jihadist group deemed “too violent” for al Qaeda - the Sunni Muslim Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - continues to nominally hold strategically important cities stretching from Raqqah in Syria to Tikrit in Iraq. Earlier this week, ISIS forcibly took control of the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, 60 kilometers west of Mosul - which the group overran last week. Iraqi armed forces have either fled in front of advancing ISIS fighters or been brutally slaughtered on camera for the internet to view. According to intelligence estimates, ISIS forces number roughly 1000 - 1500 fighters. The Shiite Muslim government of Iraq enjoys unwavering support from the Shiite Iranian regime, but the unravelling security situation in Iraq’s north is worrying Tehran. However it could offer Iran a unique opportunity to consolidate greater Shiite control over northern Iraq. When Baghdad chooses to launch a counteroffensive against ISIS, covert Iranian forces will be sprinkled among Iraqi army units and both are likely to dig in for the long haul in each city they retake. Northern Iraq is historically a predominantly Sunni region. Sunni Muslims are underrepresented in the Iraqi government, a scenario which the Iranian-backed Iraq government purposefully orchestrated after the United States and NATO forces departed the country. Iraq’s recent elections did little to change the negative political reality for Iraq’s Sunni community but Baghdad has found it difficult to maintain influence over northern Iraq despite its unopposed political control. The ISIS militant threat now offers Baghdad - and by extension, Iran - a motive to leverage greater control over the region, potentially long-term. As for Turkey, it also spots an opportunity to increase its military presence and political/economic influence in northern Iraq, especially Kurdistan. The Kurdish pseudo-state in the borderlands of Iran, Iraq and Syria bothers Turkey because it has fought a protracted insurgency with militant Kurdish actors for decades. Now that the Kurds have an effective government and a relatively clear geographical space, Ankara is growing increasingly nervous and looking for subtle ways to control any emerging threat from the Kurdish region. Despite their prickly past, Turkey and the Kurds currently have a conveniently close relationship, for now. That partnership centres on energy and the ability to deliver oil and natural gas to hungry Turks and possibly even to western and eastern Europe. Long Turkish pipelines already snake down into Kurdistan and Iraq proper, with more in the planning and development stages. Kurdistan has also attracted other international investors to its sizable energy deposits and is now looking to sell those hydrocarbon products to willing buyers. This is proving more difficult than expected as no government has yet been ready to anger Baghdad for the sake of an oil shipment from the Kurds. Iraqi oil is still the preferred option with a much longer history of reliability. In an intriguing contrast, Turkey has consistently backed Kurdish energy exports, to the frustration of Baghdad. At the same time Turkey is increasing its control over Kurdish energy by purchasing double-digit stakes in its oil and natural gas fields via ExxonMobil. Now that ISIS fighters are only a few kilometres from the oil fields, Turkey sees a legitimate threat to its investments and may be looking to intervene on its own. Roughly 2500 Turkish troops are already stationed in the upper corner of northern Kurdistan, but Ankara would like to see more there. Turkey has the best equipped military in the region, but it won’t be keen to engage ISIS unilaterally. It will first need to gauge the level of potential intervention from the United States, but Turkey is likely to discover many convenient reasons to send more troops to Kurdistan to help fix the short term ISIS problem, and in so doing, quell the more important long term Kurdish problem as well. All this is playing out in the foreground of a series of preliminary talks between Iran and western powers over the former’s controversial nuclear programme. The P 5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) demand that Iran’s nuclear research and development be halted immediately. Iran has stated categorically that it will not give up its quest to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels and refuses to allow international inspectors into its nuclear facilities. Both of these provisions were explicitly outlined in the optimistic November 2013 preliminary agreement between the two sides. Despite healthy optimism of a breakthrough last year, November’s agreement slowed but did not shutter any of Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran has now backtracked or kicked the the can on almost every stipulation in the preliminary agreement. In return, Iran has received almost no punitive response from the west. The United States has essentially ignored every affront and continues to promise a return to the negotiating table in July to discuss loosening sanctions on Iran even further. If the past six months are any indication, there is no chance Iran will reciprocate with concessions of its own. Nor is there any real reason to do so from Iran’s perspective. So why does the US insist on talks? The United States is not incompetent. It knows that Iran is not going to give up its nuclear programme without more pressure, but Washington is unwilling to apply the necessary pressure at the present time.
The US motive for talking is smart and realistic. America has bigger issues at stake in the Middle East. Washington is not going to make another ideological enemy just when it needs to extricate itself from the region after more than 10 years of direct engagement. The last thing they want is an unstable region where it must use American forces to continually restore balance. The time has come to move on from that option completely. This is the time. The ISIS threat and the nuclear negotiations have brought Iran, Turkey and the United States’ interests directly into line. Vienna’s negotiations in July will take place, and they will be especially important to watch. The reason is simple: the United States needs Iran to play the role of regional balancer because its influence on the wider Shiite community in the Middle East will be critical in the coming years. Jihadist and al Qaeda groups generally hark from Sunni Islam and are largely controlled by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. The key for the United States’ strategic future will be to restore a balance of power between the Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East. Only Iran can make this happen. But for the United States to truly exit from the Middle East, it will need to go much further. The truly historical balancing act in the Middle East is not Sunni and Shiite, but Persian and Turk. At some point in the next few decades, Turkey is highly likely to grow stronger and reclaim its historic role as hegemon over the western division of the Middle East. While Iran (modern-day Persia) will reclaim its own hegemonic influence over the eastern Middle East. Together they will balance the region along with whatever is left of the diminishing Gulf states once their seemingly unending oil revenues inevitably decline. From Iran and Turkey's perspective, they wish for control over as much of the Middle East as they can grab. In the past few years, Tehran has used proxy Shiite groups - such as the Lebanese Hezbollah - and the bloody civil war in Syria to take implicit control of a crescent of geography stretching from eastern Syria's waters to the shores of Basra in southern Iraq. If the regime in Tehran has read the United States correctly, then their judgement is that the Americans need their help to quieten the region and deal with the growing Sunni jihadist threat. The United States cannot politically afford to send its own ground troops into Iraq or Syria. It may be able to get away with deployments of Special Forces or airstrikes, but nothing substantial will be attempted. Iran on the other hand has been deploying troops in the region for decades. Even now, Iranian forces are assisting Iraqi and Syrian troops in combat, and Iranian intelligence has its tentacles spread all throughout the Middle East in ways the US could only ever dream. Washington is right now happy to cede a limited amount of room for more of this Iranian manoeuvring, so long as the Tehran doesn’t overextend itself and destabilise important US allies such as Jordan, Israel and the Gulf states. It will be a fine dance, one ready to collapse back to the status quo at any time, but its conceptual success will be crucial for the future of US strategy and Middle East security. Moreover, the United States needs Iran to help with security in Afghanistan. Iran shares a border with Afghanistan in its east. American combat forces are due to depart the South Asian country at the end of this year and Tehran has its own deep reasons for ensuring the Afghanistan remains stable. Iran has been the target of insurgent attacks from inside Afghanistan and criminal activity due to opium smuggling through Iran requires immediate addressing by Iranian security forces. But most importantly, talking to Iran reopens the possibility of bringing their dilapidated energy sector back to full exporting capacity. Not only would this help lower the international market cost of oil and natural gas, it would help fight America’s other critically important battle with Russia. A Russian stranglehold on European energy requirements severely limited the diplomatic and strategic options of almost the entire European Union in response to Russia’s recent adventurism in Ukraine. The EU would dearly like to diversify its energy sources away from Russia, and the United States shares this desire. Iran and Turkey can help make this a reality.
Turkey and Iran are the land bridge connecting Asia to Europe. If the P 5+1 can succeed in bringing Iran back into the economic fold, Turkish pipelines in the region could begin deliveries of Iranian energy directly into Europe in a potentially short space of time. The United States, Iran, Turkey, and the EU would each benefit from such a scheme. Iranian and American benefits are already clear. Turkey would become the lynchpin with critical infrastructure, while increasing its regional clout exponentially. Moreover, looking back at the current ISIS movements, deploying more Turkish troops and putting direct investment into Kurdistan limits any Kurdish ability to be recalcitrant and puts in place a blocking force against any Iranian overextension into the Middle East. That last hedge will please the Americans, giving them more options in the future in case things get out of hand. Few people were optimistic about the potential for an Iran-US rapprochement in November, but even more are confused why the US continues to insist on talking to a blatantly insolent Iran next month. But the nuclear talks were only ever an Iranian gamble, with a luxury of being traded away at any moment for greater spoils. Tehran always wanted more than just nuclear weapons. The United States probably knew this was true deep down. Washington and Iran’s strategic goals converge closer in 2014 than at any time in more than 10 years. If the Iranians offer up their nuclear enrichment programme and allow inspectors, the United States could return the favour by opening the way for Iranian hegemony in the eastern Middle East. Geopolitics is the ultimate long-term game played on a slowly changing board. The only pieces to alter are the players. And each player wants not so much to win as to avoid loss. All players have no objective but to keep the game going, because the alternative to the game of geopolitics is war. Turkey, Iran and the United States presently have more to gain by cooperation, than they do by being belligerent. Whether the players can see the wood for the trees is another question. The reality on the ground in the Middle East is changing rapidly, but the landscape is moving slower and points in an interesting direction. It isn’t often three diametrically-opposed powers see eye-to-eye, but this just might be history’s latest example. Time will tell. The movements of Turkey, Iran and the United States over the next few months should show what the emerging strategy will be.


Friday, 13 June 2014

ISIS rampages in northern Iraq as Baghdad cowers


Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al–Maliki declared a state of emergency June 12 after a powerful militant group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) rampaged out of its fortified positions, taking implicit control of the northern Iraqi province of Ninevah.

During a press conference June 13, the Iraqi Prime Minister said without a hint of irony that Iraq is passing through a “difficult stage”. He reached out to the Shiite Iraqi community to form grassroots paramilitary factions to combat the militants.

In the past few days, fighters from the Sunni jihadist group also captured the Iraqi cities of Mosul – the country’s second largest city – and Tikrit and have vowed to march on Baghdad.

Tens of thousands of refugees have fled the two cities and Iraqi troops are reportedly regrouping for a potential counteroffensive.

US President Barack Obama has said “all options are on the table” for a potential US intervention in Iraq. American strike aircraft based from US aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf have been put on alert.

Mr Maliki says he needs expanded powers from the state of emergency to combat the militant threat. But the complete failure of intelligence and lack of speedy policy preparation has put hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens in needless danger.

ISIS is now engaged in a major offensive spanning the porous borders of Iraq and Syria.

The group took over the city of Fallujah earlier this year and, after pushing Iraqi security forces back a number of times, have largely secured the city under their control. In recent weeks, ISIS also defeated their jihadist rival in Syria – the al Nusra Front – and conquered the northern reaches of non-Kurdish Iraq.

The militant group, led by al qaeda alumni Abu Bakr al–Baghdadi, split from al qaeda earlier in 2014 in a highly public argument over the ideological direction of the jihadist movement’s goals.

With the latest offensive in Iraq, Mr Baghdadi has now confirmed an anticipated eclipse of al Qaeda’s second–in–command Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri and established himself as the pre-eminent Sunni militant figure in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

Mr Zawahiri retains operational control over the Yemen, Somalia and sub–Saharan franchises of al qaeda, but his power and influence has diminished significantly since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Mr Baghdadi was imprisoned by US forces in Iraq in 2005 but was released in 2009. He took over ISIS in 2010. Since then he has repaired and strengthened ISIS’s fighting capabilities and expanded the group’s remit into Syria against Mr al Assad’s regime.

The ISIS group, in its early form, was once controlled by the horrific Abu Musab al–Zarqawi, when it was called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

Mr Baghdadi has attracted the verbal support from affiliate jihadist groups in Turkmenistan, Iran and Afghanistan who all shifted allegiance to him in April earlier this year.

Israeli Ambassador to New Zealand Yosef Livne says the ISIS movement is a worrying sign for the region. Every country in the Middle East is affected by the latest offensive.

“The ISIS goal is different to other militant groups in the Middle East. These other groups want to realise specific goals, such as the removal of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

“But ISIS want to control a vast area of the Middle East and beyond to bring it under the control of an Islamic Caliphate (a political–religious state) ruled by them or likeminded jihadists.”

He says the group poses a serious threat to the stability if Iraq and other countries and Israel will be monitoring the situation very closely.

The loss of Mosul is a significant blow to the Iraqi government and raises grave concerns that the decaying security situation has moved beyond the abilities of a weakened Iraq state to manage.

The militant group has clearly terrified the Iraq army and police units. Reports from the ground in Mosul suggest Iraqi army servicemen are removing their uniforms before being overrun by ISIS fighters and leaving their weapons behind. Heavy weapons and US–supplied equipment have been captured by ISIS fighters.

ISIS now implicitly controls hundreds of square kilometres over an enormous region spreading from Raqqa in Syria, to Mosul in northern Iraq and to Fallujah in the heart of Iraq. Fallujah is only 69 kilometres from the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

It is now very clear that Western powers have almost no control over what happens in Iraq and are effectively non-players despite what Mr Obama says.

Mr Maliki is in control of Iraq with a heavy support base in the Iranian leadership. Both Mr Maliki and much of Iran are Shiite muslims. It is now possible that Iran may choose to covertly intervene behind Iraqi troops to push ISIS back from the two northern cities if and when Baghdad chooses to strike.

Once the Iraqi army moves to counter ISIS, the country could experience a renewed wave of terror as ISIS and sympathiser Sunni groups launch suicide attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere in response.

With the Iraqi army struggling to hold back the ISIS tide, the well equipped and motivated Kurdish army (Pesh Merga), based near the occupied militant cities of Mosul and Tikrit, is the only military force capable of and willing to take on the militants.

Ultimately, if ISIS is allowed to consolidate their positions in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, there is no reason to assume they will stop there. Militant forces become much more difficult to root out once they become established.

Turkey is reportedly already considering its own options to destabilise the group, but it will face considerable legal and logistical obstacles. Egypt, Jordan and Israel are also aware they may need to confront ISIS sooner rather than later.

The United States may insist that Iraq allows their aircraft overflight for possible airstrikes in support of an Iraqi army counteroffensive. US jets will be crucial to the success of a counteroffensive because the Iraq Airforce is almost nonexistent.

If ISIS continues to repel sustained attempts to retake Mosul or Tikrit, or captures further Iraqi or Kurdish towns, then the group will grow bolder. A victory will also exacerbate the background alliance switch of other jihadist groups from around the world away from al qaeada to behind ISIS as the new leading edge of the jihadist movement.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Economics is NOT the dismal science. It’s just not.


Because you’re on this site, I assume you wouldn’t click away if I write horrible economic words like: recession, inflation, stimulus, output gaps, or GDP on this page?

You would? Hold up, that’s the old economics. The new economics is insightful and fun. So much fun. You end up seeing the world in a different way. And I don’t mean forgetting to put your glasses back on.

The whole world seems somehow clearer thanks to Tim Harford’s latest book The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run  or Ruin  an Economy.

Tim Harford isn’t the only popular economics writer around but he’s probably the best. He has that strange ability to make you never see movie popcorn in the same way.

And just before you kick the bucket, you’ll probably end up telling your friends and family to burn all your money rather than give it away. Seriously. You can tell them it’s for the good of the country.

Mr Harford excels at painting esoteric ideas of microeconomics (the everyday stuff) into understandable prose. His latest book tackles the macroeconomics of life (the big stuff) in an equally understandable way.

You’re not going to be taking an Economics 101 exam at the end but you’ll get more acquainted with the science, and that’s probably a good thing.

There has been a string of excellent popular economics books over the past decade mixing the stultifyingly boring with real-life fun to give the reader new thinking tools. Most of Mr Harford’s material is highly accessible if you have a passing interest in current events (no economic background needed).

It says on the front of the book that Tim Harford is probably the UK’s closest answer to Malcolm Gladwell. But not in the way you might think. He’s not a journalist – he’s a real person with real expertise.

He’s not going to go all “Gladwell” on you and follow a cool but admittedly crazy idea down an unfamiliar path. Instead, Mr Harford beckons you behind the curtain of life by teaching you the basics of economics in the most enjoyable way possible: by telling stories.

His goal is to explain not how to price a Starbucks coffee (he’s already done that) but what makes an economy tick. That’s a tough ask, especially in a few hundred pages. There’s a lot going on in an economy and thankfully Mr Harford is smart, funny, and clear. I’ll pick only one section of the book which proved truly relevant.

Recently, New Zealand embraced a great deal of discussion about poverty. While it’s impossible not to see starkly different standards of living here, the measurement of poverty has always been confusing. In one section, Mr Harford explains why by exposing the macroeconomic theories of relative and absolute standards underpinning the debate.

He challenges his reader to define who counts as "poor." Should the "poverty line" be fixed, or should it adapt to society's evolving definition of a minimally tolerable lifestyle?

If you say there is an absolute standard, people in New Zealand who eat three meals a day but can't afford an iPhone aren't poor. That can't be right, he says.

Ok then, let's have a go with a relative standard. The OECD defines the poverty line as 60% of median income. Seems sensible – except, Mr. Harford points out, if you doubled everyone's income, the same number of people would still be "poor." And that can’t be right either.

Mr. Harford reckons the answer is an absolute standard with reasonable fine-tuning occasionally. But perhaps nerdy macroeconomists don’t have the human gifts to make such calls.

That’s where the reader comes in. If you know how to use the thinking tools behind economics, then you’ll have a better chance of making an informed decision on important government policies.

Tim Harford’s book, like many others in the genre, gently shows you the engine behind everyday life. And it doesn’t even feel as if you’re learning. Perhaps that’s the best part.

Agri groups urge TPP deal without Japan


Recent complaints from powerful international agricultural lobby groups reveal a growing and serious irritation underlining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

During the May talks in Singapore, the Japanese negotiators flatly refused to open their agriculture sector. Japan is demanding special treatment for its farming sector, including protecting certain products from tariff elimination.

Some powerful agricultural groups are now so frustrated they have called for Japan to be booted from the talks outright. Bowing to Japanese demands would set a bad precedent, they say.
 
The United States’ National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) released a statement at the end of last week expressing exasperation with Japan’s reluctance to liberalise key agricultural sectors.

NAWG and US Wheat Associates joined with several other agricultural organisations to lash out at Japanese intransigence, saying it could indicate “the end of hopes” for the TPP.

The complaints are important – especially coming from the US wheat lobby – because of the leverage these farmers have over Washington. Should they remove their support from the TPP, the American side of the negotiations may struggle.

On the other hand, suspending Japan (should they continue to rope-off particular sectors), or even the outright removal of Japan from the negotiations as retaliation, could seriously threaten the integrity of the talks as well.

The strongly worded press release says Japan is not adhering to its own pledge “to pursue an agreement that is comprehensive and ambitious in all areas, eliminating tariffs and other barriers to trade and investment,” which Japan made when they joined the TPP talks in July 2013.

In their frustration, NAWG recommends suspending talks with Japan while continuing the negotiations with other TPP partners that are “willing to meet the originally contemplated level of ambition”.

Failing to liberalise the Japanese agricultural sector, will encourage other partner countries to “withhold their sensitive sectors as well”, the American farming group NAWG says.

“The result would fall far short of a truly comprehensive agreement that would set a new standard for future trade agreements. In fact the TPP envisioned by Japan, if it stands, would be the least comprehensive agreement the US has negotiated since the 21st century began,” they say.

At the interim Singapore TPP talks, the Japanese trade representative Akira Amari told other delegations that Japan would not remove tariffs in the seven agricultural sectors it considers “sacred”.

The seven sectors are reportedly: dairy, sugar, rice, beef, pork, wheat and barley. Also included are other downstream products such as flour and flour mixes.

A concurrent statement was released from the Five Nations Beef Alliance (FNBA) – which includes advocacy groups from Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the United States. They demand that any TPP agreement be a “high quality deal eliminating all tariffs on beef”.

Their concern is similar to NAWG’s worry as they see a lack of commitment to trade liberalisation, especially after the Singapore talks and Mr Amari’s comments.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand – a member of the FNBA – chief executive Dr Scott Champion told the National Business Review their statement was meant as reassuring advice for the negotiations.

“We want to make sure we’re speaking with one voice on this. It’s really important we get the same deal. Our message is ‘hang in there guys’ – keep pressing for a result.”
 
Mr Champion says it was always going to difficult to complete the final details of the TPP and predict future timelines, but he is “pretty optimistic” the majority of the deal will be sorted by the end of this year.

The FNBA is calling for each TPP member to provide identical market access to all other members to avoid competitive disadvantages and distortions in trade.

On the Japanese side, the advocacy group Japan Agricultural Cooperatives Group (JA Group) has openly opposed the TPP. They worry that opening the sector could harm their interests.

However, suggesting the current impasse around the Japanese agricultural trade sectors could be a temporary obstacle, the talks appear still to have top-level support in Japan. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Singapore May 31 where he discussed the TPP with counterpart Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Abe says the two countries will work closely to help conclude the TPP negotiations as early as possible. He says he is keen for reforms to open Japan’s economy and stimulate growth.

“If we miss this year, the US will have its midterm elections and no one will know what the US Congress will look like after [that].” Singapore’s Prime Minister Mr Lee says, stressing the urgency of passing the TPP promptly.

Japan currently relies on global wheat imports of about 5 million metric tons per year to meet total demand and has purchased significantly more US wheat than any country in the world. US wheat exports stand at about 3.1 million metric tons per year on a five-year average, representing over 60% of its total annual wheat imports.

American and Japanese negotiators will hold two more days of talks at the end of this week in Washington to see if they can advance the matter bilaterally.