Tough talks ahead for Japan

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who held his first talks with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on Feb. 22, said after the meeting that he got assurances that Japan would not have to promise to remove all tariffs as a prerequisite to joining talks for the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade zone. But Japan has not received a clear assurance that it can continue to retain high tariffs on such sensitive agricultural products as rice. If Japan takes part in the TPP talks, it will have to engage in tough negotiations. The TPP could greatly affect not only the domestic agricultural industry but the finance and insurance sectors as well as medical services. A big question is whether Japan is fully prepared to conduct tough negotiations to protect national interests, including those that make up the social policy fabric such as the public health insurance system, which Japan has painstakingly established over many decades. The will and ability of the government and its negotiators will be severely tested.

Although the two leaders’ talks included security matters such as North Korea’s recent nuclear test and China’s aggressive attitude in its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the focal point was Mr. Abe’s domestic political agenda: clearing the way for Japan’s participation in the TPP talks. Facing opposition from within his Liberal Democratic Party — especially from lawmakers representing agricultural communities — to Japan’s entry into the TPP, Mr. Abe wanted confirmation from Mr. Obama that there would be exceptions to the TPP’s principle of eliminating all the tariffs of the participating member countries.

In the campaign for the Dec. 16 Lower House election, which brought the LDP back to power, the party said in its pledge that as long as “abolition of tariffs without any sanctuaries” is the prerequisite for joining the TPP talks, Japan will not take part in them. Mr. Abe himself said this during the election campaign. After the meeting with President Obama, Mr. Abe said that it became clear that such tariff abolition is not a prerequisite and declared that he would like to make up his mind about Japan’s participation in the TPP talks at an early date. But the joint statement on the TPP issued by Japan and the United States after the two leaders’ meeting is ambiguous, meaning that Japan and the U.S. can interpret it in a manner that is convenient to each. If Mr. Abe proceeds with his plan to have Japan join the TPP talks, the possibility cannot be ruled out that it will cause great problems for the nation.

The joint statement says in part that Japan and the U.S. recognize “that both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities, such as certain agricultural products for Japan and certain manufactured products for the United States,” pointing to interests that each country wants to protect. It then says that the two governments confirm that “it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations.” It must be noted that the U.S. itself has high tariffs on certain agricultural products and fairly high tariffs on certain industrial products. Therefore to issue such a statement does not mean concessions on the part of the U.S.

More importantly for Japan, the joint statement says at the outset, “The two governments confirm that should Japan participate in the TPP negotiations, all goods would be subject to negotiation.” It also says in part that “the final outcome will be determined during the negotiations.” Thus Japan’s high tariffs on certain agricultural products including rice will have to be discussed during the negotiations. The lawmakers who are opposed to Japan’s participation in the TPP demand that Japan get a guarantee that it be allowed to maintain those high tariffs before Japan participates in the TPP talks. But the joint statement shows that this is not the case. What will become of those tariffs depends on the development of the negotiations. Therefore, LDP lawmakers representing the interests of the agricultural sector can be expected to continue to resist Mr. Abe’s plan to participate in the TPP talks.

It also must not be forgotten that the TPP will include the investor-state dispute settlement provision, which could empower foreign enterprises to supercede domestic political decisions and institutions in the areas of consumer safety, medical services, social welfare, environmental protection, etc., if they think that they have suffered disadvantageous treatment. The government has not given the public a sufficient explanation of how the ISDS operates.

Regarding security issues, Prime Minister Abe and President Obama agreed to seek the imposition of harsher sanctions on North Korea in response to its Feb. 12 underground nuclear weapons test, which followed the launch of a long-range rocket in December to put what the North claims to be a satellite into orbit. It will not be an easy task to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Japan and the U.S. must secure the cooperation of China, North Korea’s patron.

As for the dispute over the Senkaku Islands with China, Mr. Abe expressed his hope to protect freedom in the sea and create an order based on rule of law. To resolve the Senkaku issue, the prime minister needs to widen channels of communication with China and deepen communications with its leaders. This is important to prevent incidents that will create a dangerous situation.

After his meeting with Mr. Obama, Mr. Abe said, “The trust and bonds of the alliance (with the U.S.) are fully back.” This is a highly political barb aimed at the preceding Democratic Party of Japan administration, giving the unfair impression that it had damaged Japan-U.S. security ties. While disputes arose over the Air Station Futenma transfer plan during the tenure of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the alliance remained strong and U.S. military bases in Japan continued to function normally.

Mr. Abe and Mr. Obama agreed to forge ahead with a plan to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Okinawa Island’s heavily populated Ginowan City to the Henoko district in the north. But many Okinawans want the Futenma functions moved out of Okinawa Prefecture and will continue to oppose the plan. Mr. Abe should realize that if he pushes forward with the Henoko plan, Okinawan anger will grow and the festering issue could eventually compromise the integrity of the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Prime Minister Abe also told Mr. Obama that his government is trying to change the traditional interpretation of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense. Such a change would alter the shape of postwar Japan, which is based on the constitutional no-war principle, and in doing so increase regional tensions as well as raise suspicions over Japan’s intentions in the international community. Interpreting the Constitution as allowing collective self-defense could eventually put Japanese nationals in harm’s way in conflicts not directly affecting Japan.

  • Saidani

    Why are you focusing on the tariff issue which is a small part of the TPP? This is a pact in perpetuity being negotiated in secret which has the potential to destroy Japan’s sovereignty. Bring to light the other, more intrusive issues and stop pretending that the whole thing is about tariffs on rice and autos.