Shinzo Abe’s success in signing a free trade deal with Australia proves Japan’s prime minister can bend the once-powerful farm sector to his will, experts say, offering leverage against U.S. claims of intransigence in a wider pan-Pacific deal.
Tokyo looks set to make the most of its triumph, which came just weeks before U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Japan on a state visit that had at one point been expected to crown the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The Japan-Australia deal was signed Monday after Abe’s summit with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and followed seven years of sometimes torturous negotiations.
The agreement will see Australia drop its 5 percent duty on small and mid-sized Japanese cars — something of a symbolic move for a country that is soon to lose the last of its auto plants.
In exchange, Canberra has partially prized open Japan’s tightly-controlled agricultural markets, winning an up-to-50 percent cut in steep tariffs on imported Australian beef.
The deal “puts pressure on the United States over deadlocked talks with Japan” that form a key plank of the TPP project, said Takaaki Asano, research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation.
At issue is what Washington and many of the other parties to the talks — which also involve Chile, Mexico, Canada and several Asian countries — see as Japan’s unwillingness to open its lucrative agricultural market.
Putative suitors have long complained that sky-high tariffs — on rice it is nearly 800 percent — and nontariff barriers, like overly-strict safety requirements, are naked protectionism pandering to a powerful farming sector.
Japan’s farmers — largely elderly, conservative and with smallholdings that would barely be worth tilling in many countries — have traditionally been a formidable political force.
Through large and well-organized cooperatives they have backstopped Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, helping it to maintain a virtual stranglehold on Japanese politics since the mid-1950s.
The narrative these cooperatives spin intimately links Japanese national identity with the shape of the countryside, idealizing the small rice paddies that make up the rural landscape and warning this essence of Japanese-ness is under threat from an onslaught of poor-quality, unsafe farm imports.
Abe’s triumph in the Australian deal has been to prove that he is prepared to take on this entrenched ideology and offer up his beef farmers, pitting them against the vast ranches of the Outback, whose economies of scale dwarf their Japanese competitors.
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Abe had told his ministers that he definitely wanted a trade deal struck during Abbott’s visit, regardless of protests from the farming lobby.
But the trick, says Waseda University professor Shujiro Urata, is that Tokyo has not given away very much. “The compromise Japan made this time is not huge,” he said. Commentators have noted that the full roll-back of beef tariffs to the headline level will take almost two decades.
But nevertheless, it was a compromise, and it undermines U.S. complaints that Tokyo is not prepared to budge.
“The ball is now in Washington’s court. They must be thinking hard now,” said Urata.