NEW YORK – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe departed Monday for New York with two deals in mind — an envisaged Japan-U.S. trade agreement and the strained Iran nuclear accord at the center of rising tensions in the Middle East.
Abe is scheduled to attend the U.N. General Assembly for the seventh straight year, giving a speech Tuesday that will emphasize Japan’s support for a multilateral approach to tackling global issues ranging from climate change to marine plastic debris.
One major highlight of his trip, however, will be his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday, as they may sign a bilateral trade deal after negotiations that began with Washington’s threat of higher auto tariffs.
The deal, which Trump may claim as a victory, would see Japan cut tariffs on beef and pork and help mollify U.S. farmers who say they have been at a disadvantage since the entry into force of free trade agreements that do not include the United States, such as the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In the run-up to the summit, Japan’s top negotiator Toshimitsu Motegi — who recently became foreign minister — and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer plan to finish off remaining work on the deal.
On Sunday, Motegi said trade talks with the United States will bring peace of mind to farmers and automakers, according to an interview with NHK aired ahead of the key bilateral meeting this week.
“(We) have been holding negotiations on the basis of trust,” Motegi told NHK. “I don’t have any worry at all about the things ahead.”
High on the priority list for Japan is to secure assurances from the United States that it will not impose higher tariffs on auto imports. Motegi has said he wants written assurances that Trump will not impose such levies. But any promises arising from this week’s talks will still need Trump’s final approval, adding uncertainty to the prospects of a deal, Japanese sources familiar with the matter said recently.
Autos make up about two-thirds of Japan’s trade surplus with the United States and such tariffs would hurt its trade-reliant economy. Japanese manufacturers have already come under heavy pressure this year due to slowing overseas demand.
Trade may steal the spotlight in the Abe-Trump meeting, but Iran is also on the agenda. Triggered by Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and major powers and the re-imposition of economic sanctions, the U.S.-Iran standoff has intensified. Tension in the Middle East has spiked since recent drone attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia sent crude oil prices higher due to supply concerns.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attacks, which the United States has blamed on Iran. Tehran has denied involvement.
On Friday, the U.S. stepped up its sanctions on Iran and also decided to send more U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. Japanese officials say Abe is expected to ask Trump not to escalate tensions and to avoid unintended military clashes in the region. As stability in the Middle East is critical for Japan, which relies heavily on energy imports from the region, Abe is set to call for dialogue with Iran.
On Tuesday, before meeting with Trump, Abe will sit down with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and is expected to stress the importance of talks with the United States, according to the officials.
Abe has been seeking to mediate between the United States and Iran. He visited Iran in June, becoming the first sitting Japanese leader to do so in over four decades.
Abe also plans to encourage Iran to follow commitments made under the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has been seeking to speed up uranium enrichment, in apparent protest against the United States for stepping away from the accord. Japan, which is not a signatory to the deal, has nonetheless consistently backed it.
Abe is also scheduled to meet with King Abdullah II of Jordan, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and European Council President Donald Tusk on the fringes of U.N. meetings.
Motegi will likely meet with his counterparts, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his stay through Friday.
The focus is on whether Motegi will hold talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha amid deteriorating bilateral ties over trade and wartime history issues. Japanese government sources have said they could meet Thursday.
After leaving New York, Abe plans to travel to Belgium to deliver a speech on Friday at a forum on the Asia-Europe relationship. He will return to Japan on Saturday.