USTR Froman’s Attack on Japan Set TransPacific Partnership Negotiations Back Further

By Clive, a regular Naked Capitalism commenter and self-confessed Japan-o-phile

In case you missed it, on Wednesday the US Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman attacked Japan in front of Congress for undermining the TransPacific Partnership via refusing to give much ground on protection of its agricultural sector. Not to pat myself on the back, but I’d told you that this was how it was likely to play out based on various accounts in the Japanese press.

So how are the Japanese responding to this US sniping? while it’s getting mentions in all the usual suspect news outlets (Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri, the JP Reuters wire and so on), because it is contemporaneous reporting the Japanese media are doing their usual routine of simply trotting out the undisputable facts and not adding any editorial. They’ll get round to writing a bit of opinion in a week or two when they’ve collectively worked out what their opinion should be.

But there is one pretty remarkable thing in the Japanese coverage – certainly that which has gone to press in the past couple of days since the Congressional hearing – and it isn’t so much as what is being reported as what isn’t. Reading the Financial Times’ version of events, we get the pleasure of the full version of Froman’s throwing his toys out of the pram. Not so in the Japanese media’s reporting.

Here is the Yomiuri Shimbun’s take on the story (translated):

USTR (Michael Froman)’s Thoughts on Current TransPacific Partnership Negotiations — Report from the (Congressional) Hearing (on 3rd April 2014)

From our Washington correspondent Kunihiko Yasue

At the 3rd hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, US Trade Representative Michael Froman testified about the current situation and the outlook for the Trans-Pacific Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) negotiations.

For trade talks between Japan and the United States, Froman said the US “is dedicated to bridging the gap (between Japan and the US) in agricultural products and in the automotive field” and said he was minded to speed up the negotiation process.

Clive here: Having read an awful lot of coverage, both in the US and Japanese media, of the TransPacific Partnership negotiations, one thing which is becoming a consistent theme is USTR Froman’s seemingly unshakable belief that he is entitled to secure an agreement on the TPP and that the role of the other countries participating in the negotiations rounds is simply to roll over and have their tummies tickled by the US. Which may account for the lack of progress… back to the original piece:

A Japan-US summit meeting scheduled for late April is a milestone of the Japan-US talks. USTR Froman is due to consult with Akira Amari, Japan’s minister with responsibility for TPP, next week in Japan and he will be looking for clues in the Japanese position which might lead to a breakthrough.

Japan is requesting that (what it considers as) “the five important items” which include rice and beef imports amongst other agricultural products are excluded from areas of tariff elimination. Froman said of this “(the US) cannot accept that such a wide range of goods is removed from the tariff elimination discussions” and that the US’ intention was the exact opposite. Moreover, with respect to Japan, Froman said he believed Japan should be flexible and Japan should show an attitude indicating concessions in tariff consultations. In addition Japan had stated it was “to promise to open up in a meaningful way the automotive market and agricultural products market in Japan” but had instead given the idea that Japan did not want to compromise in the Japan-US talks in the future. Froman said that the TPP negotiators were willing to continue “to negotiate in order to reach an agreement during 2014.”

Clive again. Now read the FT’s version. Were Barney Jopson (the FT’s reporter) and Kunihiko Yasue (of the Yomiuri) at the same hearings? Okay, after seeing the Japanese media’s version of what was said at the hearing last week, you’re left is no doubt that the Froman is telling Congress that it’s a case of “Bad Japan. Bad, ba-aaa-d Japan”. But Japanese readers wouldn’t, unless they routinely read English-language reporting, know that Froman has said the following: “It’s time for Japan to step up to the plate. That’s not just our view, it’s the view of all the TPP countries.”

Why such self-censorship? That last quote attributed to Froman was probably the defining outburst (sorry, comment) from his committee appearance. Why was it omitted from the Japanese coverage? Western media likes nothing better than to cite name calling by foreign governments and gleefully grasp with both hands the opportunity to fill a few column inches with cheap jingoism.

The answer I believe lies in the importance of understanding and being sensitive to cultural differences — especially in diplomacy and where treaties are being discussed. If USTR Froman had an ounce of good sense and wasn’t – from what after following his conduct for the past year or so in the TPP discussions I am now firmly convinced he absolutely is – a complete oaf and a total ignoramus, he might have done a bit of background investigations as to how he should deal with Asian countries in general in negotiations with Japan in particular.

The very worst thing you can ever do to a Japanese person is make an overt, direct criticism of them to their face – unless you are completely sure with 100% confidence in the differences in social standing and the interpersonal or inter group dynamics. And before I go any further, as a non-Japanese, you are pretty certain to be – and forever to remain so in their eyes – unqualified to make criticisms of their country’s approach to external affairs where Japanese self-interest is in play without as a bare minimum providing at least some token caveats.

This is not to say that the Japanese don’t take criticism – in a workplace situation, for example, managers can be and often are by US or European standards outrageously denigrating when required to subordinates. Or if you go into a store as a customer, being offhand to sales staff is not taken to be the sort of social faux pas (or as an exhibition of your own self perceived superiority if that’s a game you like playing) that it is in the same situation in the West. It’s just “how it is” in Japan.

But in an environment where parties are on equal terms, like in diplomatic dealings between supposed allies, heaping criticism – in public! – of Japan in a heavy handed way like Froman did at the Congressional hearing is an unforgivable affront. Such antics will without a shadow of doubt not produce the desired outcome for the US government.

By way of an example, let me relay my own tale of woe about cultural miscommunication: Clive and Chocolate Cheesecake. A few weeks ago while have coffee at the house of a friend of 10 years+, Yoshiko, I was asked if I’d like a slice of cheesecake. Having had a fairly long journey to reach her house, I was, to put it mildly, famished. So naturally I said yes. And apart from hunger, the other motivation was that Yoshiko is like many Japanese an excellent cook. The promised cheesecake was duly brought. For some reason I’m still scratching my head over, I forgot nearly 5 years of experience gained while living in Japan and a much longer time getting to know various Japanese people as well as I think any non-Japanese person can and without even so much as an “Itadakimasu” proceeded to scoff the whole lot in a couple of mouthfuls. This, after failing to show appreciation for the visual presentation, thank my host profusely for going to such trouble for me as a humble guest and generally saying that I thought this was the most considerate thing possible. Then, believe it or not, I made the situation worse. Throwing in for good measure some of my – acquired taste – humour, I quipped in a cavalier way about how, with portion sizes that small (if you go to Japan and compare portion sizes, especially for desserts, with their US or UK equivalents, you’ll get to realise why we’re so fat) it was just as well there was a coffee shop down the road I could go to later for a proper bite to eat. Well, I thought it was funny anyway. My generous host visibly recoiled at this (to her) heinous put-down, apologised at great length for being so stingy, offered me her slice too and said it was inexcusable but that pitiful morsel was all she had left to offer, it being the, presumably, last of the cheesecake. About the only thing I could have done to make things more uncomfortable for her would have been to walk in with my shoes on and strike up a conversation about who started the war. I’ll spare readers the subsequent grovelling and only partially successful attempts to redeem the situation which I continue to have to do. I think it’s fair to say that it will be quite a while before Yoshiko offers me anymore chocolate cheesecake.

Even after a long well established friendship, my ill-judged criticism was really, really hurtful. The Japanese people do not simply brush off these things the way you or I might.

Between western friends – as equals – such verbal tongue-lashing is okay as both parties are fair game for the other. The Japanese sort-of tolerate it and maybe even expect if from foreigners (e.g. tourists) who they simply don’t think will understand. But between senior government representatives, the Japanese would consider these to be “in group” relations and so to be aware of and to respect each other’s positions. But no.

Here’s Froman – not just briefing against the Japanese to friendly journalists but sitting there in Congress – mouthing off about how the Japanese are being two faced and duplicitous and it’s not, according to Froman, just the US who thinks they are a double-dealing thoroughly untrustworthy lot but the whole of the Pacific rim thinks they are too. Seriously, is this guy really the best that the Obama administration could find? I’d call him “dumb” but that’s way too kind.

Trying to be balanced here, although I’m not sure why I’m bothering, perhaps USTR Froman is getting a tad frustrated. The Japanese can be very frustrating at times. But this sort of petulance is going to get him nowhere.

I don’t normally give the likes of Froman advice. I doubt he’d be listening for a start, and why should I anyway? But let’s just say that unless he (and not the Japanese) gets an attitude adjustment, it’s not just me that’s getting no more chocolate cheesecake from the Japanese.

What’s prompted this bellicose grandstanding by USTR Froman ? Perhaps not coincidentally, Froman is due to visit Japan next week for high level talks aimed, yet again, at brokering a TPP deal with the ruling LDP party.

Once more from The Yomiuri Shimbun, which has an analysis of this development:

Japan and the United States to Hold TPP Ministerial Talks Next Week

In order to accelerate the TPP negotiations, next week Japan and the United States will attempt a change in the direction of the discussions when consultations recommence at a ministerial meeting between USTR Froman and his Japanese counterpart, Akira Amari, in Tokyo.

Clive, butting in: I’ll spare NC readers the following three paragraphs which précis the long, long history of US-Japan TPP discussions and detail for the benefit of Japanese who the key players are which have, for the most part been, delegated to lower level functionaries and bureaucrats from the Japanese trade ministry. We now re-join the original article where it starts to get interesting:

It appears this time, Mr. Froman is to visit Japan as well,

Clive: Lucky Japan ! A visit from Froman himself. Things must be in trouble. Back to the Yomiuri:

…also a sign that the United States has been serious about moving towards a political settlement before the upcoming summit (with US President Obama in Tokyo, at the end of April). At the U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the 3rd April, Froman had said the US and other countries “are negotiating in order to reach an agreement in 2014”. At the congressional hearing, Mr. Froman showed a desire to conclude later this year.

Clive again. I’ll bet he did. It suggests that Froman thinks a good dose of US roughing up of Japan in advance of his visit will do the trick. When we watch television programmes from North Korea where bombastic news anchors invoke a tirade of disapproval for, say, the US, we have a good laugh. Why ? Because it just looks ridiculous. Froman’s posturing to Congress evokes the same reaction to the Japanese.

The long form analysis from last Friday’s Yomiuri also politely declines to repeat the worst aspects of Froman’s haranguing of Japan. I’ll say it again: You do not want criticise the Japanese abruptly, it makes them extremely uncomfortable and their only reaction in public will likely be to ignore it and pretend that they hadn’t heard it or didn’t understand it.

Fool that I am, I can’t help have a little bit of sympathy for Froman. The reason for this misplaced empathy is that he is hopelessly burdened with a fundamentally weak position. As a small child, when I couldn’t get my way, my last desperate resort would occasionally be to throw a tantrum. Naturally, it did very little to improve a basic absence of actually being right or mustering a good argument to support my position on, perhaps, being allowed to stay up after bedtime.

After reminding its readers of the known issues with regards to agricultural subsidy removal, being demanded by the US as part of TPP, The Yomiuri’s analysis feature crisply concludes with a further facet of what a quagmire the US has made for itself in this supposed “trade deal”:

Also in the topics encompassed by the TPP negotiation talks, the international trade in autos is an area where the United States seeks to increase its exports. It wishes other countries to adopt its own safety and environmental performance standards.

Clive here: Yep, those same high standards which GM adhered to with its wonky ignition keys. Back, before red mist comes over me, to the Yomiuri:

The implication of this is the US’ claim that Japan (amongst other TPP countries) should change the car tax system which levies tax increases in proportion to the amounts of exhaust pollution emitted. Mr. Mori, part of Japan’s TPP negotiating team said, “There are still a large number of very difficult problems” and that he couldn’t be optimistic about the outlook.

Clive: One of the TPP’s unintended (but nevertheless predictable) consequences. Subsidies and protectionism come in many different forms. And some things that look like they might be anti-trade are perfectly legitimate steps for nation states to take with the aim of social reform, improvement of a regional economy or environmental protection. Japan, like many other countries uses the tax system to promote more fuel efficient vehicles. US auto makers may very well be able to claim that such tax incentives are “unfair” must be dismantled.

Of course, the way is open to the US to be a bit less dogmatic about what it thinks should – and shouldn’t – constitute the TPP. If it stepped back and took a look at the economic and political problems some of its apparent deal-breaker clauses for the TPP will cause – as here for Japan – it might remember the maxim that trade deals are, like the rest of politics, the art of the possible.

For USTR Froman, though, he obviously thinks that megaphone diplomacy is the way to go. If he ends up sinking his own nasty trade treaty in the process, there’ll be few tears shed in Japan.

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  1. efschumacher

    If the whole eleventh-dimensional chess thing hadn’t been discredited you might be tempted to think that:
    – the Potus man himself had made certain commitments to his corporate backers at the outset of his sudden rise to prominence,
    – -but those commitments regard “Pivot to the Pacific” included certain things that were inimical to his broad (but unmonied) political supporters,
    – so he is seen to very strenuously pursue two big “Trade” deals, yet guarantee that they won’t come good, by carefully empowering this oaf to ‘do his worst’.

    Is the cack-handling of TTIP equally as diplomatically-inept-but-poitically-slick?


  2. Jose

    Contrast this piece on Japan with this report on Germany

    “German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU and the U.S. should make a new “push” to complete negotiations creating a free trade area. The economies should “bring together what belongs together,” she said.

    Need we say more?

  3. Spring Texan

    There will be very few tears shed by sensible people in the US if the TPP is scotched either. HURRAY for idiocy in a bad cause!!! :-)

  4. Systemic Disorder

    We should hope that Froman continues his oafish ways. We need every bit of help we can to defeat the TPP. Of course, it is not only cultural ignorance that accounts for this behavior, but the belief that government exists to maximize by any and all means the profits of U.S. multi-nationals.

  5. susan the other

    Short of threats to leave Japan undefended in its skirmishes with China over waters and islands, there isn’t much strong-arming Froman can do for the multinational trade scammers. If international trade is the art of the possible, somebody oughta tell Obama that it is absurd to pretend trade can be profitable for anyone. Import levels will drop to token amounts. I wonder what minimum quotas might be. If you don’t order things you do not need or want you can be fined.

    1. Clive

      Yes, good point: All the US can realistically do is to threaten Japan that it might do less for them in future if they don’t fall in line with the TPP. Which is hardly a good ploy if you’re also trying to “Pivot to the Pacific”. Any idiot knows that if you don’t have a strong hand, you don’t take a haughty position. You can try bluffing, but in Asia-Pacific politics, everyone knows who is holding what cards.

  6. John

    The Japanese will do everything they can to keep those pesky geijin products from invading their shores. There will be some Japanese unique-ness they will marshal up to keep Froman digging in his heels. Then there will be meetings to discuss what was discussed in previous meetings so they can discuss it some more in more meetings. By then, Froman will be out of office…. just what the Japanese trade negotiators are hoping for. Sayonara, Froman-san.

  7. Tony

    free trade agreements:

    The central demand of the Colombian campesinos was for guarantees of fair prices for agricultural products and in particular, the cancellation of the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with USA and the EU. The FTAs removed import tariffs but placed no restrictions on subsidies in rich countries, thereby allowing agribusiness to sell commodities in Colombia at obscenely low prices.

    FTA provisions also included the compulsory registration of seeds nation-wide, a move that paves the way for US agribusiness to corner the market with patented seed varieties. In Huila, 70 tonnes of rice harvested from unregistered seeds was seized from campesinos and dumped — this in a country with a poverty rate of 32 per cent.

  8. ReaderOfTeaLeaves

    Clive, I became more hoffified with each paragraph and was cringing by the sixth. O.M.G.

    I’m not Japanese, but have taken the language, have numerous Japanese (and Korean*) friends, and so reading about the appalling rudeness and inconsiderate –oafish — conduct of US trade rep Froman was downright ghastly. What it says about US government that such a buffoon could be given his position is chilling. (If I were a US business exec reading your account, I’d be burning up the phone lines to get this knucklehead removed ASAP.)

    Apart from the fact that Froman is missing the incredible richness of Japanese culture, he’s making us look like a nation of asshats. With this level of craven stupidity, we deserve to fail. The Japanese will, no doubt, be so gracious that Froman will be clueless about what’s happening as timelines are stretched out ;)

    Hope you and Yoshiko repair the friendship.

    * IMHO, the Japanese have traditionally viewed the Koreans with an aversion somewhat akin to what I observe among my Anglo SoCal friends toward south-of-the-border types, but I sense that attitudes are softening.

  9. Jackrabbit

    More confirmation that Harry Reed’s deliberately mis-heard statement (that fast-track is dead) was just politicking – a means of protecting Congress-critters who are expected to vote for ‘fast-track’. The Administration is still pushing hard to get these trade deals done.

    One can not let one’s guard down with these scoundrels.

  10. Dwight

    The Nikkei reported on Froman’s “time for Japan to step up to the plate” remark and quoted him as saying not just the U.S. but all TPP countries want Japan to open its market.
    I don’t find Froman’s statements very remarkable, and doubt Japanese people, and certainly not sophisticated business and government leaders, would be offended to the point of changing their position. Japan’s reluctance to eliminate tariffs is simply a different perception of national economic interest, and I think the focus on Japanese culture is misplaced.
    I listened to the hearing and was struck by Froman telling the committee he was concerned that if Japan tries to negotiate tariffs reductions rather than complete elimination, then Canada will also do so. Subsequently Japan and Australia reached an agreement on reciprocal tariff reductions in the beef and auto sectors. Did Froman commit some faux pas against those mysterious, exotic, and sensitive Aussies and Canucks, or are there just different negotiating positions?

    1. Clive

      Well, I’d say that the Nikkei’s version of Froman’s comment (“time for Japan to go into bat” or perhaps “get into the game”) was more anodyne than the original “step up to the plate”. To me, the original English version has much stronger connotations of Japan shirking its responsibilities somehow, at least in Froman’s eyes.

      But I’d say you’re spot on with your assessment that, by dragging New Zealand and Australia into the fray (who would have been quite happy to join in the Japan bashing, eager as they are on getting easy access for their native agricultural industries to Japan’s huge market) Froman is being quite clever there — trying to make Japan look like an isolated hold-out from an inevitable fait accompli.

      But do you really think that dynamic will play well in Japan ? I’m not so sure myself.

      Perhaps my sentiment is coloured by European politics — any attempts by, for example, France and Germany to “stitch up” Britain in EU negotiations have a powerful rebound effect in domestic UK opinion. The Daily Mail jumps at the chance to go apoplectic. Sometimes canny UK politicians engineer such quarrels. There’s a long history of mixed feelings — all the way from a genuine desire to co-operate through to barely concealed animosity. The same true of Japan and the US, bound together as they are — like any allies are — with a combination of mutual dependence and resentment.

      So we’ll have to agree to differ on the importance of cultural factors, but I won’t be as quick to dismiss them.

      1. Dwight

        Yes, Nikkei seems to have just done a direct translation of the American idiom, perhaps just because the reporter was busy or didn’t want to assume a connotation by choosing a comparable Japanese idiom. They could have said something like “sekinin wo toru you, honki wo dasu toki da.” I still don’t think that calling on Japan to assume a responsibility would be particularly offensive.

        I’m not totally rejecting cultural analysis, but think that focus on cultural factors can obscure easily definable interests that transcend culture. One example was the report on Fukushima that ascribed the accident to a unique regulatory culture in Japan, which I thought obscured a dangerous regulatory culture common to the nuclear industry worldwide.

        Thanks for your very interesting posts – I look forward to more!

  11. Hugo Stiglitz

    If I were a trade deal negotiator, I would covertly sabotage the deal just enough to keep the negotiations running as long as possible. That has got to be one sweet gig. ;-)

  12. digi_owl

    “one thing which is becoming a consistent theme is USTR Froman’s seemingly unshakable belief that he is entitled to secure an agreement on the TPP and that the role of the other countries participating in the negotiations rounds is simply to roll over and have their tummies tickled by the US.”

    Reminds me of a claim i once encountered, supposedly from an Japanese businessman.

    He preferred negotiating with Europeans, as they understood that a negotiation was about finding a middle ground.

    Americans on the other hand always came thinking their way was the only way, and the negotiation was about getting the other side to accept that.

  13. participant-observer-observed

    What? Japanese farmers aren’t ready to turn over their farms (and ancient rice strains) to Monsanto?
    No! You don’t say!

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