Japanese Prime Minister Abe Vows to Conclude TransPacific Partnership by Year End. Should We Worry?

Last week, I came across an article in Japan Times which gave the impression that the TransPacific Partnership was being revived from the dead. From the article:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a “strong intention” to conclude the TransPacific Partnership talks by the end of the year, TPP minister Akira Amari said Friday as the U.S. pork lobby pressured Japan to make concessions, but added that the free trade deal cannot be struck without a commitment from all sides.

“Political leaders should show their strong will” to achieve agreement on the U.S.-led pact to reduce barriers to trade among the 12 countries this year, Amari said in Tokyo.

Abe is eager to wrap up the TPP talks early because the pact is a “pillar of Abenomics,” Amari said, referring to his deflation-battling economic plan centered on aggressive monetary easing, massive fiscal spending and vows of structural reform.

Now as convincing and worrisome as this might sound to English-speaking readers, a lot gets lost in translation, both linguistically and culturally, in dealing with the Japanese. For instance, “I will try” is pretty much tantamount to “no,” as it usually really means “I’ll do what I can, but I can’t deliver this on my own.” Now Westerners might assume that a Prime Minister is a powerful leader and can make commitments that he can complete, but Japanese organizations don’t operate that way, save for owner-controlled companies. In fact, the typical gaijin impulse to see the head man to work things out is proof that they haven’t studied the basics of Japanese culture. Decisions are made much further down in the organization and are passed to the top in an almost ritualized manner. Thus, the nominal leader’s authority is considerably constrained by the need to work through getting the cooperation and support of the constituencies that are seen as having the right to influence the decision.

But one can hardly conclude much either way from an English translation of some upbeat remarks by an official spokesman. So I turned to NC’s favorite Japanese-reader and cultural interpreter, Clive. From his e-mail:

Yes, there are apparently no limits to the number of times that USTR Froman and the US TransPacific Partnership negotiating team can try to get a momentum play going where Japan is concerned. I’d call Froman a one-trick pony but that’s insulting to the pony because at least with a pony you can put a straw hat on it and it’ll look cute.

I’ve been diligently following the Japanese press, well, as diligently as my patience allows because in the past couple of months or so absolutely nothing, not one iota, of new news has emerged. The main news outlets (Asahi Shimbun, Nihon Keizai and suchlike) periodically trot out TPP stories, all along the lines of “Japan re-considering US pork tariff concession proposals” or “US urging Japan to go further on rice to re-energise TPP” and so on. I was thinking of churning out translations of these, but while I like to think I can turn a phrase to make interesting copy, there might be a limit to what NC readers can tolerate in hearing the same old Froman/Amari (Japan’s TPP negotiator) rhetorical re-treads before they say “enough already” !

I had thought after the conclusion of President Obama’s state visit to Japan (which, as far as the TPP – and pretty much everything else for that matter – went was a complete failure) that what would happen is that Japan and the US TPP negotiating team would tread water with these sorts of go-nowhere discussions and both sides would play for time until after the Autumn’s mid-term elections had completed. Then Japan could see what the Washington political landscape looked like and take it from there. If Obama gets a good result, then he could stand a chance of getting Congressional approval for a TPP treaty. If not, Japan will know not to throw any political capital into TPP because even if Republicans are all for it in principle, they aren’t going to lift a finger to give Obama any successes. Everyone the whole world over knows how US politics works (Japan especially so) and that the Republicans are quite happy to cut off their ideological noses to spite Democratic faces.

If anything, the populist Japanese press is now writing off even that possibility (of getting back to TPP negotiations in earnest once the US midterms are out the way). For example, the Mainichi Shinbun (one of Japan’s better attempts — quite a breath of fresh air compared to the stuffy uber-mainstream titles and more willing to go out on a limb) had this
on the 11th July which is expressing the idea that even with the midterms over and assuming an Obama-loyalist Congress (a big “if”) then all that will do is merely get one blocker out the way and make room for the next one – fundamental TPP disagreements about pretty much everything.

The headline reads:

TPP Conclusion Will be After the End of the Year…

Selected sections:

It’s now certain that conclusion of the Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) negotiations will be delayed until the end of the year at the earliest. Resolution of issues in the areas of tariffs and intellectual property rights remain. Resolving these issues by the chief negotiators in Ottawa, Canada, of the 12 participating TPP countries was a pre-requisite to holding a further Ministerial (level) meeting….

Mid-term (congressional) elections are to be held in the United States, which is leading the (TPP) negotiations, this November and will have a big – delaying – impact.

The Mainichi Shinbun’s article then goes on to report that the Amari had said after a cabinet meeting that he didn’t think the negotiations would conclude until after the mid-term elections.

The situation is so obvious isn’t it? Why would Japan — or any of the TPP participating countries — negotiate on a TPP deal which USTR Froman may never be able to get through Congress? Of course, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe will in public keep talking about how keen they are to conclude a deal. What else could he possibly say? “Take a vacation Froman, let’s all get together again at the end of November, we’ll check our diaries, but with the holiday season coming up then… might be better to make it next year…”. Being fair to Froman, he can’t exactly ‘fess up that he thinks it’s all a huge waste of time too. Going through the motions is part of politics. It’s worth here a brief cultural observation. Traditionally in Japan (as you know from working there) there’s a big psychological push to concluding business by the end of a year. A desire to clear away anything outstanding from the previous year before the start of a new one. But if the Japanese negotiators reckon that a TPP agreement is impossible in 2014, they’ll conversely give it little attention and instead mentally move it into the folder labelled “2015”.

As for any sign of potential sweeteners from the US to help Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) get popular support for the TPP (sentiment in Japan about the TPP is very, very negative), there has been absolutely nothing reported in the Japanese press. US options are very limited, but there are things such as the closure of the disliked US military base in Okinawa which are in the US’ gift. But the US — along with Prime Minister Abe — wants to keep a military presence in that geographical location so the “solution” is still a movement of the base to a more depopulated area rather than a closure — and even that has stalled due to internal Japanese political resistance. Apart from an initial test of mettle of China’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) shortly after its announcement by China in 2013, there have been no further US actions and the instructions to US commercial flights to obey ADIZ protocols indicates, if anything, the US’ tacit support for it. And there’ve been no US initiatives to help resume the 6 party talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. In the end, I suppose, military priorities trump economic ones for both the US and Japanese governments.

If I’m right, the next few months will be nothing but going through the motions. If the US TPP negotiators seriously believe that they can induce some sort of unilateral concessions from Japan, they’re deluded. If these are genuine negotiation tactics, they’ve elevated them to the level of performance art and if their careers in politics flounder, ones in Hollywood surely beckon.

Yves again. One thing that is striking is the assumption in the Japanese media that “Democrats doing better in the midterms” increase Obama’s odds of getting Congressional support for the TransPacific Partnership next year. But the degree of rebellion among Democrats hasn’t been often enough mentioned for word to get across the Pacific. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has said he won’t table a bill. Over 140 House Democrats have signed letters against the TransPacific Partnership, and whip counts showed at least another 20 Democrats opposed. Speaker of the House John Boehner has said he doesn’t have the votes. So even if the Democrats manage to pick up seats, as in Japan, there does not seem to be anything at work to shift the well deserved, widespread antipathy to this toxic trade deal.

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  1. wbgonne

    Yes, I think the Japanese may be misunderstanding the dynamics of American politics. The GOP obstructs Obama for various reasons, mostly tactical except for the Tea Party wing’s visceral hatred. One reason for GOP obstruction is to give Obama cover for his Right Wing “compromises,” another is to get Obama to give even more, and yet another is simply to make the Black Guy fail. It depends upon which element of the GOP is driving the bus at the moment. But “free” trade will not likely stir Tea Party resistance and the Big Money GOPers are 100% behind it so TPP is one area where a GOP-controlled Senate may deliver to Obama exactly what he wants: his very own NAFTA. Another area where a GOP-Senate may deliver for Obama is the Grand Bargain. The Tea Party sunk the deal last time and that’s why the Big Money GOPers want the Tea Party gone. But now Elizabeth Warren and the the other Democratic “populists” — milquetoast though they may be — have actually stymied Obama on some of these key economic issues. Can they do so if the GOP takes the Senate? I doubt it. If that happens. Obama will probably say he had no choice but to agree with the GOP, to be the “grown-up in the room,” meanwhile getting exactly what he wanted all along. First Joe Lieberman was the conjured obstacle. And ever since the Dems lost the House, it’s been the GOP. It’s SOP at this point. Obama likes to hide his neoliberalism because, notwithstanding his ideological commitment, he is smart enough to know how unpopular that ideology is with the American people generally and Democratic partisans in particular. Obama needs a foil so he can pretend he is being forced to what he intended to do all along. The Black Bart routine. In fact, I’d say it’s reasonable to think that Obama hopes the GOP wins the Senate.

    I know I shouldn’t but I still find myself in shock that we are fending off Obama’s assaults even now. He is relentless.

    1. different clue

      Obama may not need to hand the Senate over to a Republican Majority in order to get his TPP. It would only need a strong Republican plurality plus “just enough” Vichy Democrat Senators to give Obama his TPP majority.
      If there is a way to tell which Dem Senators would be Vichy on TPP in advance, voters at various levels could abort their careers in primaries or in the General election. Are past results any guide to future performance?
      Are some “Democratic” Senators reliably against Free Trade and others reliably for it? Can we know whom to target in advance?

      Also, if the Pork Lobby all by itself is really offending and repelling mid-level Japanese planner-thinkers, then applied reverse psychology might call for every possible American to contact every possible officeholder and Administration official to voice their fanatical support for every element of the Pork Lobby’s most maximalist position. Perhaps we could lure the Pork Lobby and its government servants into pissing off all the right Japanese so thoroughly so as to make rejecting TPP a matter of sacred honor to the Japanese deciders.

      1. wbgonne

        I agree that TPP may go through whichever party holds the Senate. I think it would have happened already (at least on the U.S. side) except that Elizabeth Warren infused a bit of old-time Democrat into the Obama/Clinton plutocrat Dems. Not that Warren did this singlehandedly but her mere presence cleared some space for others to operate, enough to stage a mini-rebellion against the TPP within the Dem caucus. Just goes to show how very little it would take to move the Democratic Party Left. Alas, as we have a black neoliberal ideologue pretending to be a rationalist as our Democratic president, there is simply no oxygen in the room for the Left to breathe. I have often thought that Obama would have much preferred Scott Brown over Elizabeth Warren; certainly, their policies are more alike. In any case, I have little hope that the U.S. political system will abandon Obama on the TPP when push comes to shove. But the rest of the world distrusts us and dislikes us so much that that might help defeat an international agreement like this. So, thanks for that, President Obama.

        1. different clue

          Primary and General voters are still free to try helping eachother figure out which Democratic officeseekers/ re-seekers are Democrats against Free Trade and which ones are VichyDems for Free Trade. The Free Trade VichyDems can be voted against and perhaps defeated and removed. If the Tea Publicans are in fact more opposed to TTP/TTIP than the DLC VichyDem Turd Way neoliberals, then it would be better to vote for the Tea Publican if that is what is opposing a Turd Way VichyDem.
          If the Free Trade VichyDems could be purged, burned, and exterminated out of every office they hold; perhaps remaining Democrats would find they have some air to breathe, especially in company with the Tea Publicans.

    2. Seamus Padraig

      “Obama needs a foil so he can pretend he is being forced to what he intended to do all along. The Black Bart routine.”

      Ha, ha! The Black Bart routine! That’s one of my favorite scenes from ‘Blazing Saddles’. And it describes Obummer’s ‘negotiating’ style so well. Incidentally, I tracked down the video for all of you who haven’t seen it. Enjoy!


  2. timbers

    “Yves again. One thing that is striking is the assumption in the Japanese media that “Democrats doing better in the midterms” increase Obama’s odds of getting Congressional support for the TransPacific Partnership next year.”

    True or not, it’s a depressing feature of Obama that so often you half hope the other team wins.

    1. different clue

      Japanese against TPP are not the “other team”. They are on the same side as we are. It is Economic Treasonists for TPP in both countries who make up the “other team”.

      1. different clue

        If I should better understand you as calling the “Republicans” the “other team” . . . I offer the hope that it may be possible to tell the Patriot Democrats from the Vichy Treason Democrats for TPP and get Republicans elected in place of the Vichy Treason Democrats in every election where a Vichy Treason Democrat is running.

      2. different clue

        And if a Tea Republican is running against a Big Biz Republican and / or against a Vichy Democrat . . . we should absolutely work/vote/donate for the Tea Republican. Enough Tea Republicans in the Senate would obstruct a Catfood Republican/ Catfood Democrat coalition in its Grand Catfood Bargain conspiracy against Social Security.

  3. Jeff N

    ” I’d call Froman a one-trick pony but that’s insulting to the pony because at least with a pony you can put a straw hat on it and it’ll look cute. ”
    Hilarious! :D

  4. John

    When it comes to oligarchies getting their way with ‘trade deals’ they have a very high batting percentage. Dems and Repubs come together when Wall Street or Nikkei demand more largesse from the public.

    1. Me

      I wouldn’t call this a trade deal. Is closer to the WTO and it will be the nail in the coffin of our democracy. Makes financial, enivoronmental and labor regulation impossible. Support for domestic industry is outlawed and the intellectual property parts of the deal are horrific. Remember, there were no public health exceptions under the WTO until there was an uproar from countries like Thailand and India. Where will that come from if our elected reps can’t see the deal and can’t talk about what is in the deal with the public? The Democrats like Obama that support this deal could never support what is IN the deal (which is why it is secret) or how it has been negotiated. If he and the crooks that run that party had souls they’d be ashamed of themselves. I have no patience for his now ditched empty rhetoric about inequality when he supports deals like this.

  5. Quite Likely

    It’s hilarious the extent to which Republicans are their own worst enemy on a lot of issues. If they had let him Obama would have cut social security, signed the TPP, and a number of other conservative priorities, in exchange for little if anything from the Republicans. On the other hand it’s a little scary that an important defense of left policies in the US is the psychosis of the right.

  6. syzygy

    I can’t help but think that TPP and TTIP are the Trojan horse, drawing fire away from the extremely similar (but if anything worse) TISA: Trade in Services Agreement, which is being simultaneously negotiated in Geneva. I wondered if Clive has seen TISA reported in the Japanese press. It has almost nil coverage in the UK. However, clearly TISA would fill the gap if TTIP/TPP fail and current popular opposition has to date focused on the trade deals and ISDS.


      1. Clive

        Yes, a very interesting question. And the answer is equally interesting because even by the lapdog standards of the Japanese press, TiSA coverage has been astonishingly muted. As in, none of the major news outlets seems to have anything on it at all. Now, this could well be because for Japan to TPP is a much hotter potato so it makes sense to concentrate on that — which being balanced here does get a LOT of column inches and also the odd slot on the national news channels.

        TiSA does have a proper Japanese name (新サービス貿易協定 or New Services Trade Agreement).
        The only official information I’ve been able to locate is a very anodyne press release from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/press/release/press6_000387.html). It’s dated 28th June in Heisei 25 (which is last year) and tells the reader very little apart from TiSA discussions started in Geneva, Switzerland and how the initiative is being run under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), who the participating countries are, how keen the Japanese are to participate and see progress, yada yada yada.

        Actually, in this case, that does have some truth to it, at least from the perspective of the Japanese government — which has strong ties to big business — Japan does consider itself to have been one of the greatest beneficiaries of “free trade reforms” under the GATT agreement. This was in large part because Japan knew from the start it would be able to game that system — tariffs on its exports were reduced which was fine and dandy, but the Japanese got to keep their internal market soft barriers to entry (such as labyrinthine wholesale/retail chains and weird and wonderful “standards” which curiously enough many foreign goods often ended up not meeting). With the TPP, it’s a bit different, the provisions of the TPP seem to be trying to learn from the loopholes in GATT and it will be harder for the Japanese to try and wriggle out of the provisions they don’t like. This is because the corporations are put in a much stronger position in being able to shove errant countries about through the use of trade arbitration “courts”.

        Unofficial channels (such as the Stop TPP!! blog http://stoptppaction.blogspot.co.uk/ — I love that double explanations mark, and yes, I’d agree, stopping the TPP does warrant two explanation marks…) have the odd bits and pieces about TiSA, including that its impact is more likely to be noticeable in the digital / media industries because of its provisions on protecting information transfer across borders.

        But in summary, the Japanese media – both mainstream and non-traditional (but especially the mainstream) – carries little information that we didn’t already know.
        For new readers who want to learn more about this subject, the best place for TISA coverage is probably The Guardian (e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/13/capital-politics-wikileaks-democracy-market-freedom). If I do find anything interesting in the Japanese press, I’ll send to Yves to include in NC.

        1. syzygy

          Thanks for that Clive. I always look out for your excellent reports so I’ll be bound to notice if you find anything.

  7. susan the other

    Sorry to be suzie one note, but… Fukushima. Japan just signed a trade deal with Australia, having nothing to do with the TPP, without much agonizing over the negotiations. Japan is trading its cars for Australia’s beef. Japan is going to trade its technology for food a lot in the coming 25,000 years.

    1. John

      Then soon they’ll have no food because I doubt they’ve got 100 years left of technology to trade.

  8. mellon

    Look at this article from the UK- This is exactly what Ive been trying to tell people in the US for a long time about the FTAs blocking any future progress on health care if they – especially ISDS, standstill, ratchet and all the rest, are not stopped…

    Similar provisions exist in the TPP- that is why TPP is a bad bad thing for this country.. So is TISA, so is TTIP.

    —–Please read the following—- from https://www.opendemocracy.net/ournhs/john-hilary/on-ttip-and-nhs-they-are-trying-to-bamboozle-us

    On TTIP and the NHS, they are trying to bamboozle us by John Hilary 14 July 2014

    The NHS has become a key battleground for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the controversial treaty currently being negotiated in secret between the European Commission and the US government.

    Now that more and more people are becoming aware of the threat that TTIP poses to public services, the European Commission and its friends have found a new and inventive way of trying to bamboozle people into accepting it.

    On the eve of the sixth round of talks, which begin in Brussels this week, a ‘private’ letter from the EU’s chief negotiator, Ignacio Garcia Bercero, to John Healey MP was conveniently leaked to the Guardian and Financial Times. The letter attempts to downplay the fact that public health services are included in TTIP, suggesting that there is no need to fear for the NHS as a result.

    The media went further, suggesting that there was to be a ‘carve out’ for the NHS, or that US companies would not be allowed to run public health services in the future. Both claims are entirely false.

    The first thing to note is that there is nothing new in the letter, nor any change in the EU’s position. The European Commission has used exactly the same arguments to defend the inclusion of health, education and other public services in all previous trade agreements, as those of us who have been engaged in these debates for the past 20 years know all too well. Yet trade experts point out that public services are still highly vulnerable when they are included in negotiations, particularly when private operators have been granted access to public sector contracts, as is the case with the NHS.

    The second thing to note is that the letter came from the chief EU negotiator to one of the principal cheerleaders for TTIP in Britain. John Healey chairs the all-party parliamentary group on EU-US investment, and has been doing his best to prevent trade unions and campaign groups from joining opposition to TTIP over the past few months. Happily, all major trade unions in Britain are now part of the campaign to stop TTIP. So here are some basic truths on the NHS and TTIP, starting with the most important and getting more technical as they go on:

    1. Health services, medical services (including midwifery and physiotherapy) and dental services are all included in the TTIP negotiations. We already knew this because we saw it with our own eyes in the EU’s draft offer to the USA that was uncovered last month. Indeed, Garcia Bercero’s letter acknowledges that health services are on the table. The only sector that has been excluded from the TTIP talks is audio-visual services, as a result of dogged insistence by the French. All other public services are in, and can be traded away for further liberalisation if the US negotiators so demand.

    If David Cameron wished to exclude the NHS or any other public service from the negotiations, he could do as the French government has done. All that is needed for this to happen, as the British Medical Association (BMA) has demanded, is for no mention of health services to appear in TTIP at all. In reality, of course, it is Cameron’s government that has already opened up the NHS to private providers by means of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. Why would he raise a finger to get it excluded from TTIP?

    2. Garcia Bercero’s letter also confirms another key charge from opponents of TTIP: that the NHS is open to attack under the new investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) rules that TTIP would introduce between the EU and USA. For the first time, US corporations would be able to bypass our domestic courts and challenge our national health policy decisions before ad hoc arbitration tribunals, and to sue us for hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘damages’ as a result of future policy changes that might affect their bottom line. This is one clear mechanism that would prevent any future government from bringing the NHS back into public sector hands, as the cost of compensating private providers would render such a move instantly unattractive.

    Garcia Bercero would like us to believe that future challenges to the NHS would be ‘unlikely’. Yet the Slovak Republic has already lost a multi-million dollar case under similar rules to Dutch insurance company Achmea (search on Achmea v. Slovak Republic at http://italaw.com ) for reversing the country’s earlier (and deeply unpopular) privatisation of health insurance. Tobacco giant Philip Morris is currently using ISDS provisions to sue the Australian government for billions of dollars over its new public health law that all cigarettes must be sold in plain paper packaging. Ken Clarke MP, the minister with responsibility for TTIP, has admitted that the UK could face exactly such challenges from US health corporations if the treaty goes through.

    3. Garcia Bercero’s next argument invokes the safeguard on services supplied ‘in the exercise of governmental authority’ that was first introduced in the 1994 General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and has become standard in other trade agreements since. Yet this safeguard is worthless in protecting public services in the modern era, as the definition of services supplied ‘in the exercise of governmental authority’ requires them to be supplied (a) not on a commercial basis, and (b) not in competition with any other service supplier. As trade experts have confirmed over many years now, the NHS does not qualify for this protection on either of the two counts.

    4. This brings us to the final reason given by Garcia Bercero as to why we should not worry about the inclusion of public services in TTIP. Individual EU member states are still allowed to register their own special reservations for particular services in the liberalisation tables drawn up by the negotiators and submitted to the other side in the talks. Yet the UK government has entered such a reservation in TTIP for ambulance services only. Under TTIP, US health care companies would have the right to supply hospital services or social services. (or vice versa- which is already happening )

    International trade negotiations are deliberately complex, and this has long allowed officials to bamboozle the general public with impunity. Releasing Garcia Bercero’s letter into the public domain (it is available here) has allowed TTIP’s supporters to claim that the treaty poses no threat to the NHS. The opposite is true, and our struggle against TTIP continues as before.

    —-END OF QUOTE—–

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