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
story 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…
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.