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Abe warms to bilateral trade deal with U.S. but vows to still protect farmers

by

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday gave the clearest indication yet that Tokyo may accept Washington’s departure from the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and instead settle for a bilateral trade deal with the United States.

“We will, of course, persistently continue to approach America about TPP, but just because we do so doesn’t mean other options aren’t available,” Abe told the Lower House Budget Committee. He was responding to questions from Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Itsunori Onodera.

The remark represents a shift away from Abe’s past assertions in the Diet that he will steadfastly try to persuade U.S. President Donald Trump to get on board with the TPP, which the bombastic real estate mogul called a “death blow for American manufacturing” on the campaign trail.

Abe did not elaborate, however, on the stance he will take on the matter during his impending first post-inauguration summit talks with Trump.

Reports emerged Thursday that the Abe-Trump summit may come as soon as Feb. 10. The Japanese leader declined to confirm the date, but acknowledged that Tokyo and Washington are now in the “final stage” of scheduling the meeting.

The 12-nation trade pact was seen as a linchpin of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, the “gold standard” for trade rules that, if realized, would have become a vital counterweight to a burgeoning China.

Japan’s pursuit of a bilateral economic partnership with the U.S. in lieu of the TPP would amount to a major compromise by Abe, who has considered the pact essential to reinvigorating Japan’s stagnant economy.

Trump, meanwhile, has made no secret of his preference for bilateral deals over the TPP as part of his much-touted drive to prioritize the American interest. Within days of his inauguration, he delivered on his campaign pledge by signing an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from the pact, rendering its entry into force virtually impossible.

On Thursday, Abe said the possibility of Japan striking a bilateral free trade agreement with the U.S. cannot be entirely ruled out.

But even if Japan does settle for a bilateral deal, Abe stressed that the nation will remain uncompromising in its commitment to “protecting what should be protected,” a reference to the five “sacred” product categories, including rice, beef and wheat, that lie at the crux of Japan’s farming sector.

“We will navigate any kind of bilateral negotiation based on the belief that agriculture is the foundation of our country,” he said.

Also speaking to the Lower House committee, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said she will hold her first dialogue with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who will be in Japan for two days from Feb. 3.

Inada expressed confidence that Mattis’ visit to Asia — which comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s launch — underlines Washington’s “great interest” in the Asia-Pacific region.

Thursday marked the kickoff of the Lower House Budget Committee in this year’s ordinary Diet session, and saw opposition lawmakers grill Abe over a range of topics from the Emperor’s abdication to the government’s move to rectify Japan’s culture of long working hours and an amendment to make conspiracy to commit crime illegal.

Despite his vows to put an end to karoshi (death from overwork) tragedies in his annual policy speech last week, Abe repeatedly dodged questions on whether the government will submit a bill to regulate overtime within the ongoing Diet session, saying such legislation requires careful consideration.

Abe and the opposition remain far apart, meanwhile, over the government’s move to crack down on criminal conspiracies.

Although the government casts the intended legal revision as an effort to combat global terrorism, DP lawmaker Shiori Yamao said this sugarcoats the true nature of the revision.

Past efforts to enact similar legislation have failed amid strong concerns that it could endanger people’s freedom of expression.

Abe stressed the importance of the revision, saying the legal measures currently in place are not enough to effectively combat terrorism and that the envisioned revamp could make for the “sweeping arrest” of potential terrorists.