WASHINGTON – Japan will not have to vow to remove all trade tariffs if it joins the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade initiative, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed Friday, setting the stage for the country’s early entry into the ongoing talks.
During their summit talks, the two leaders said they also agreed to enhance security cooperation in Asia in response to North Korea’s nuclear threats and China’s mounting military assertiveness, which has escalated territorial disputes throughout the strategically critical region.
It was their first White House meeting since Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party administration took office in late December.
“The two governments confirm that should Japan participate in the TPP negotiations, all goods would be subject to negotiation,” Obama and Abe said in a joint statement, adding, “As the final outcome will be determined during the negotiations, (Japan) is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP (discussions).”
Abe had said that Japan would not join the multilateral, U.S.-led free-trade talks if it were required to abolish all tariffs without exception under the Pacific Rim accord, reflecting opposition from domestic farmers — a core constituency of his ruling LDP that fears an influx of cheap agricultural imports.
The prime minister used his inaugural face-to-face meeting with Obama to sound him out on the possibility of Japan excluding certain agricultural products, especially rice and beef, from the zero tariffs principle.
“It became evident that (the TPP) is not premised on tariff elimination without sanctuary,” Abe told a joint news conference after their meeting, standing alongside Obama. “I will determine (whether to join the discussions) as early as possible.”
After returning to Tokyo, Abe is expected to accelerate the process within the LDP-led ruling coalition to build a consensus on Japan’s accession to the TPP. Eleven Pacific Rim economies, including Australia, Singapore and Chile, are hammering out a framework for the accord.
Among other topics covered, Abe told Obama that Japan is close to signing the 1980 Hague treaty on cross-border parental child abductions, and subsequent custody disputes, following years of pressure from the United States, Canada and major European countries.
Abe said the Diet is expected to pass related bills in May with the endorsement of both the ruling and opposition camps, allowing Japan to finally join the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
On North Korea, the two leaders voiced their shared “determination to take strong actions in response” to Pyongyang’s latest rocket and nuclear provocations, according to Obama.
The North conducted its third underground atomic test Feb. 12, drawing international condemnation that included calls for additional sanctions to be slapped on the reclusive country. That followed its successful rocket launch in December, which was widely considered a ballistic missile test. Both actions were carried out in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Abe and Obama confirmed the importance of cooperating to seek the imposition of harsher sanctions on North Korea, among them a possible ban on financial institutions in the United States found to have done business with Pyongyang.
Obama meanwhile reiterated his support for Abe’s efforts to address the decades-old abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. He also offered his condolences for the 10 Japanese killed in last month’s hostage crisis in Algeria, and pledged increased bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
On maritime security, Abe said Tokyo and Washington will look to enhance cooperation under the bilateral security alliance to ensure peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of an increasingly belligerent China.
Abe raised concerns about Chinese vessels that have repeatedly intruded into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus since the previous Democratic Party of Japan administration nationalized the disputed islet chain in September. He also sought Washington’s understanding on Japan’s official position on the uninhabited East China Sea islets, namely that they are an inherent part of Japanese territory and that no dispute exists as to their sovereignty. The islets are administered by Japan but also claimed by China, which refers to them as Diaoyu.
The prime minister hopes to hold talks with China’s new leaders about the territorial row, after the U.S. called on Asia’s two largest economies to begin dialogue and come up with a peaceful solution to the increasingly acrimonious clash.
Abe is further seeking to bolster Japan’s defense capabilities through a possible revision of the pacifist Constitution, as well as the government’s interpretation of it, in order to re-brand and allow the Self-Defense Forces to exercise collective self-defense overseas.
Another of his key policy pillars is to restore ties with the U.S. that frayed during the three-year rule of the DPJ, which Abe has repeatedly criticized for harming bilateral ties by trying to renege on a pact with Washington to relocate a U.S. base within Okinawa.
“The trust and bonds of the alliance (with the U.S.) are back,” Abe said after meeting with Obama.
At their joint news conference, Obama for his part stressed that “Japan is one of our closest allies, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is the central foundation for our regional security and so much of what we do in the Pacific region.”
On the contentious — and long-stalled — relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Abe and Obama agreed to forge ahead with the existing plan to move the facility from the heavily populated city of Ginowan to a rural coastal district farther north on Okinawa Island. Local residents want the base moved outside the prefecture altogether, and have successfully held up the proposed plan for years.
Upon Abe’s return, his government will seek Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima’s permission to undertake the offshore land reclamation necessary for the air station’s planned new site. However, Abe did not convey to Obama when he would seek the governor’s authorization, a prerequisite before work can begin on constructing a replacement base.
Concerning economic policy, Obama said he and Abe were of the same mind that “our No. 1 priority has to be making sure that we are increasing growth.”
But while noting that Abe is winning public support at home for his growth-oriented economic policies, Obama fell short of commenting on what has been dubbed “Abenomics” — a package of bold monetary easing, ample fiscal spending and strategies to drive up employment, productivity and private investment. The radical approach has triggered criticism from some of Japan’s trading partners that the Abe administration is deliberately weakening the yen to boost the country’s export-driven economy.
With regard to energy issues, Abe asked Obama to approve U.S. shale gas exports to Japan to secure cheaper resources for the nation’s power stations, now that all but two commercial nuclear reactors remain offline in light of the safety issues raised by the Fukushima disaster. In response, utilities have had to ramp up thermal power generation to ensure a stable supply of electricity, sending their procurement costs soaring.
Washington has not previously authorized the export of shale gas to countries with which it has not concluded a free-trade accord, and Obama only said that the U.S. recognizes Japan as a key ally.