Browse By

The Return of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

TPP Protester

Anti-TPP protester (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — After about a year of hanging about in the background, the issue of Japan’s participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations was suddenly thrust back into the front rank of political debate.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been in favor of Japan’s participation in TPP negotiations all along, as was his predecessor Naoto Kan. However, it appears that Noda decided to soft-pedal the matter late last year as he faced the daunting challenge of raising the national consumption tax, a divisive issue within the ruling party that he saw as the bigger priority. His decision may also have been related to the fact that the United States was then entering its election season and therefore it would be unlikely that Washington would show much flexibility toward Japanese trade concerns.

The consumption tax hike battle is now successfully concluded and Barack Obama has just won reelection to the White House, settling those previous factors.

And yet, Prime Minister Noda’s announcement this weekend that TPP was back near the top of his agenda and that participation in this trade framework—together with a trilateral trade agreement with Beijing and Seoul—would be enshrined in the new DPJ election manifesto must be ranked as quite a surprise. Certainly, we didn’t see it coming.

The factor which seemed prohibitive of this approach is that there are still some strongly anti-TPP lawmakers within the DPJ and advancing this policy line is practically an invitation for them to resign. We have already been discussing how the DPJ is only a handful of seats above a governing majority in the House of Representatives. At first glance, Noda’s statements on TPP look vaguely suicidal.

Indeed, the response from the anti-TPP wing of the ruling party, led by former Agriculture Minister Masahiko Yamada, is already coming. “If the prime minister declares we will join the talks,” Yamada was quoted as saying, “a sizable number of party members will leave the DPJ.” The Yomiuri Shinbun cites one ruling party member as saying that about thirty more lawmakers are seriously considering bolting from the DPJ and that a full embrace of TPP could very well be the trigger that causes the final split.

At least two party heavyweights, Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada and Strategy Minister Seiji Maehara, are said to be pushing strongly to move ahead with TPP and then going into a general election by the end of this year. The notion that seems to be emerging among some core members of the ruling party, as far as we can understand it, is that it would be better to play offense heading into a general election rather than to stumble backwards into one. These people have seized upon TPP as the best issue they have in which to bring the opposition LDP to battle.

There is a theoretical case to be made. First of all, the LDP, with its rural base, almost certainly will be forced to take an anti-TPP line once the public spotlight shines on this issue and this will cause them a number of serious political problems: It will foster disunity within this conservative opposition party. Although a firm majority will be against TPP, some of the most dynamic lawmakers are keenly for it.

Second, there are powerful lobby groups like Keidanren that favor TPP, and this issue could be a way for the DPJ to confirm its ties with this organization which have been frayed by the ruling party’s unwillingness to wholeheartedly endorse nuclear reactor restarts. Keidanren may also be reminded of the reasons why they ditched the LDP for the DPJ some years ago.

Third, a similar effect is in play as regards Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and the Japan Restoration Party. If the Noda administration could somehow succeed in making the next general election a referendum on TPP, then it would become much harder for the pro-TPP JRP to work with the anti-TPP LDP. This issue could potentially put a powerful wedge between Hashimoto and Abe, no matter how many rightwing “values” they believe that they share.

But there are also some very serious drawbacks to the TPP strategy as well. The split in the DPJ ranks over this issue will certainly be close to immediate, whereas the benefits listed above will take time to develop. Also, we are not aware of any great popular groundswell within the Japanese general public demanding entry into TPP. The proponents are mostly lukewarm, while in the rural areas there is little doubt that agricultural lobbies will mobilize strongly against TPP, as they were already doing last year.

There are also a lot of other drawbacks to TPP that have nothing to do with farmers. Many TPP opponents in Japan cite issues like the healthcare system, insurance, and patents as the reasons why they are against it. TPP is not a simple FTA, but something larger and murkier, whose actual benefits are more debatable when seen in their entirety.

In this context, DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi’s reported statement that dissolving the National Diet on the TPP issue is “unthinkable” is not hard to understand. He apparently believes that this approach would be a serious loser that would lead to a meltdown for the DPJ at the polls. He favors a strategy of maintaining party unity and holding on to power until next summer, when political conditions might be more favorable. Clearly, it will be Yoshihiko Noda who will make this decision, if he hasn’t made it already.

In light of his comments this weekend that TPP should be included in the DPJ election manifesto, he may intend to go for the quick and bold move. If Noda believes that more lawmakers are going to defect from the DPJ in any case, and that Koshiishi’s strategy of delay until next summer is impractical, then this would probably be the right call.

As political analyst Corey Wallace has rightfully pointed out, fighting the general election on the TPP issue could produce solid medium-term dividends for the DPJ whether they win or lose at the polls. For the reasons outlined above, TPP would be a hot potato for a prospective Shinzo Abe administration, provoking disunity while the DPJ became a smaller, more coherent entity with an identifiable cause to rally around. The DPJ may be thrown out of power, but free trade advocacy could give them a distinct identity and a set of allies to rebuild with.

So we are back to the “Urban Agenda,” with all its attendant problems.

But in spite of the difficulties and potential for a party meltdown, Prime Minister Noda may be treading down this road. He has started talking about the DPJ “returning to its origins” and being the party for taxpayers and consumers. Other DPJ executives are leaking plans to make the DPJ a centrist or “middle road” party that acts prudently and is not given to counterproductive flirtations with rightwing ideology.

Some of this talk sounds pretty good, but we still have to wonder how you can win a parliamentary majority with this kind of strategy. Rural areas are still going to be massively overrepresented within the electoral system, and it’s not clear that a pro-consumer, soft-spoken, free-market-oriented DPJ is going to be particularly attractive to these particular constituencies. Someone might want to remind the prime minister that when the DPJ was pursuing its early agenda as a party for taxpayers and consumers, it was also a minority party that couldn’t find its way off the opposition benches for a decade.

The Japan Restoration Party at least has its whole “regionalism” and “decentralization” thing to help them invade the LDP’s rural stronghold. What does the DPJ have to offer?