Commentary / Japan

How the prime minister can win over Japan's neighbors

Abe would be wiser to find the economic prosperity he seeks closer to home

It’s time for a TPP acronym reboot: Trumped Pacific Partnership is a far more appropriate name than Trans-Pacific Partnership as the 11 remaining members pick up the pieces.

Donald Trump’s first act as U.S. president was pulling out of the TPP pact that predecessor Barack Obama spent years negotiating. It was a stinging blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who spent a ton of political capital rallying his Liberal Democratic Party behind the TPP, only to then call it “meaningless” without the United States. Even so, he is wisely leading the charge to resurrect the pact, and one thing he could do this week to make it all the more meaningful: pull South Korea and Indonesia into the tent.

Sure, Abe should try to woo China to fill some of the massive output void. But even if China were interested — a huge if — such an overture might enrage his buddy Trump. So why not grow the TPP pie more safely and methodically by adding North Asia’s third-biggest economy and the largest in Southeast Asia, to the tune of $2.4 trillion annual output?

It’s a win-win. South Korean President Moon Jae-in saw his blueprint to accelerate growth and increase wages upended from three directions. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s missile barrage has pushed legislating and economic retooling to the back burner. China’s President Xi Jinping is retaliating for Seoul’s welcome of U.S. missile defense, leading to the eviction of Lotte Group, boycotts of Hyundai cars and eviscerated tourism. Trump is so livid that Moon wants detente with Kim that he’s pledging to tear up the five-year-old South Korea-U.S. free-trade agreement.

Abe can offer Moon a Plan B, and begin a process of renewal for Tokyo-Seoul relations. Moon looks askance on the “comfort women” deal between Japan and his predecessor Park Geun-hye, one of Abe’s major foreign policy achievements. Luring Seoul into TPP is a chance to make amends and take the bilateral relationship in a more productive direction. And for Moon, the economic logic is hard to refute.

“For South Korea, the benefits of TPP membership are multifold: sizable gains from trade, greater bargaining power in ongoing negotiations with China and Japan to tackle non-tariff barriers, the rationalization of its FTA noodle bowl,” Brookings Institution’s Mireya Solis wrote in a 2013 report. “For a country with ambitions to become an international trade hub, absence from a major platform to promote Asia-Pacific economic integration would be a lost opportunity.” These benefits are even more acute today.

Indonesia, meanwhile, is a geopolitically vital nation Abe has struggled to befriend. His aggressive Southeast Asian outreach efforts are largely about countering China. Its Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and “One Belt, One Road” initiatives aim to buy loyalty with vast piles of cash to build roads, bridges, ports and power grids. That upends Tokyo’s vision of the regional security balance. Abe’s most assertive efforts have been with Southeast Asia’s fellow democracies — the Philippines and Indonesia, but also with TPP signees Malaysia and Vietnam.

But Indonesian President Joko Widodo may be obtainable. Jakarta expressed interest in TPP in 2015, with Widodo, who’s called Jokowi, viewing it as way to force vested interests to modernize. A deal covering more than 40 percent of global gross domestic product, one involving Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam, would force Jakarta out of its comfort zone and onto a more competitive path. That changed when Trump reneged.

But something else changed in the last month: Jokowi is pushing back against Beijing’s bullying ways. At Southeast Asian forums, Jakarta is becoming more assertive about China’s territorial claims. Corporate circles grumble about the long strings attached to market access or aid from Beijing. Abe should make a fresh TPP pitch, playing on Southeast Asia’s fears of becoming a mere subsidiary of China Inc.

Risks abound, of course. Abe must act carefully and diplomatically in passing olive branches to Moon and Jokowi. One bad step and Xi’s government might add Japan to its economic blackmail list. Trump’s Twitter feed might again label the yen too weak or slam Toyota as a job stealer. Yet if Abe keeps to the economic arguments, he can appear to be acting above politics. Why not invite Moon and Jokowi to send high-level emissaries to Tokyo for the TPP talks beginning Thursday?

Abe needs this, too, as he plots an October snap election. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike is absolutely right, as she said Saturday, that Abenomics “has not produced an actual feeling of growth or led to hope.” Trump’s zero-sum worldview ensures that any bilateral trade deal will be a matter of Tokyo making all the concessions — and getting trumped anew. That would throw Abenomics, which is in first gear, into reverse. Abe would be wiser to find the prosperity he seeks closer to home. South Korea Inc.’s China investments plunged 44 percent in the first seven months of 2017 — cash Tokyo should be courting. And making new friends in the process.

Based in Tokyo, journalist William Pesek is the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.” Follow him on Twitter: @williampesek