For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Thursday’s summit with U.S. President Barack Obama should have been a big moment to trumpet the strength of the Japan-U.S. alliance, which he claimed has greatly improved after relations soured under the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration that preceded his.
But the diplomatic drama that unfolded from Thursday night to early Friday instead underscored that bilateral relations are shaky, despite Abe’s insistence that he and Obama made “historic” achievements. The key problem is the failure of both nations to reach a broad accord on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
On Friday, Japan and the United States barely managed to release a joint statement following Thursday’s Abe-Obama summit in Tokyo, an unprecedented and embarrassing delay for Japanese diplomats.
According to Japanese media reports, U.S. officials at one time took the statement “hostage” and demanded more concessions from Japan on TPP issues during the overnight negotiations.
The statement was critically important for Tokyo, since it was set to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to defend the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, as pledged by Obama during Thursday’s joint news conference with Abe. The islets, also claimed by China, are considered a potential military flash point.
But due to the prolonged, strained TPP talks, the two countries were unable to release the Japanese version of the statement until 10:50 a.m. Friday, shortly after Obama left Tokyo’s Haneda airport for South Korea, the next destination of his four-country Asia tour.
The tough, marathon TPP talks after the summit even surprised the Japanese negotiators.
“If I was asked to serve a minister in charge of (the TPP talks) again, now I would say I don’t want to,” an exhausted Akira Amari, economic and fiscal policy minister who represented Japan in the TPP talks, said Thursday evening.
The U.S. is demanding that Japan abolish or drastically reduce its tariffs on U.S. beef and pork and ease safety regulations on U.S. automobiles exported to Japan.
The joint statement failed to include any specific agreements on the TPP talks.
“The U.S. and Japan are committed to taking the bold steps necessary to complete a high-standard, ambitious, comprehensive TPP agreement,” the statement read. “Today we have identified a path forward on important bilateral TPP issues.”
On Friday morning, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters he believes Japan had gained much through the security talks with Obama, who has pledged verbally and in writing to defend the Senkakus.
This is widely seen as a blatant warning to China, which claims the islets and calls them Diaoyu, as well as a major diplomatic achievement for Abe.
“I think (the) Foreign Ministry doesn’t have any more things to say” beyond the statement as far as security issues are concerned, Aso said.
But according to Aso, Tokyo and Washington failed to reach a TPP agreement because Obama doesn’t have enough political clout at home to make substantial concessions on trade to Japan, at least until after U.S. midterm elections in November.
“Obama doesn’t have the clout to form (a national) consensus (on trade) in his country,” Aso said.
“Even if Obama and Amari reach (TPP) agreements, you can’t say they will be certainly approved by the Congress. . . . So it’s only natural they agreed to continue talks,” Aso said.
Congress has not given Obama trade promotion authority, the special negotiating power to promote trade talks without approval of the legislature.
This lack of fast-track authority has made it difficult for Obama to strike an easy compromise with Japan on trade. As Aso pointed out, given the failure of the U.S.-Japan talks this time, the whole TPP process involving the other countries could stagnate until the U.S. midterm elections are over.
“I’ve been very clear and honest that American manufacturers and farmers need to have meaningful access to markets that are included under TPP, including here in Japan,” Obama said Thursday during the joint news conference with Abe.
“Now, there are always political sensitivities in any kind of trade discussions. Prime Minister Abe has got to deal with his politics; I’ve got to deal with mine,” Obama said.
Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has pledged in elections that it will maintain tariffs on five product areas, namely beef and pork, dairy products, rice, wheat and sugar.
Tokyo officials were initially optimistic, believing the U.S. would eventually strike major compromises since the TPP without Japan’s huge markets would not be attractive for the U.S.
The other TPP participants are Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, Brunei, Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Canada and Mexico.
On security, the joint statement released Friday morning read: “The U.S. has deployed its most advanced military assets to Japan and provides all necessary capabilities to meet its commitments” under the U.S.-Japan Security treaty.
These commitments extend to all the territories under the administration of Japan, including the Senkaku Islands.
“In this context, the U.S. opposes any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands.”
During the news conference, Obama also expressed support for Abe’s move to revise the long-standing interpretation of the pacifist Constitution so that Japan would be able to exercise the right of collective self-defense.
Obama’s endorsement is likely to give momentum to Abe’s push for the change of the interpretation, which would allow Japan to provide more military support for the U.S. forces.
Gist of Japan-U.S. summit statement
The following is the summary of the joint statement issued Friday after the summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama in Tokyo.
- Japan, U.S. identify path forward on TPP issues; much work remains to be done but both sides are committed to taking bold steps to complete the ambitious pact.
- U.S. commitments under security pact extend to all territories under Japan’s administration, including Senkakus.
- U.S. opposes any unilateral move to undermine Japan’s administration of Senkakus.
- Japan, U.S. share strong concern over China’s air defense identification zone declaration, and other actions raising tensions in East, South China seas.
- U.S. welcomes and supports Japan’s consideration of exercising the right to collective self-defense.
- Japan, U.S. reaffirm commitment to reducing base-hosting impact on Okinawa.