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Third Time Lucky on Trans-Pacific Partnership?

Abe Obama

Prime Minister Abe and US President Obama (White House)

SNA (Tokyo) — The third consecutive Japanese prime minister has embraced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and this time it is probably for real—at least as far as entering the negotiation process goes.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used his much-awaited visit with US President Barack Obama to crow a little bit about how he was “restoring” the US-Japan Alliance after the three dark years of the Democratic Party of Japan.

As far as we can recall, the Hatoyama administration, in its early months, challenged the shape and manner of the American alliance, then lost its nerve and descended into confusion. Prime Ministers Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda moved Japan back to its traditional US-centric diplomacy. It’s not clear exactly what Abe thinks he’s restoring, but it seems to be an article of faith among the hard right that the DPJ “abandoned” the US-Japan alliance during their time in power, no matter what the facts may be.

At any rate, one quite substantial result seems to have emerged from the meeting between Abe and Obama, and that is that TPP has moved near the top of the agenda, and probably won’t even be delayed until after the July House of Councillors election as previously expected.

Some credible reporting by Peter Ennis suggests that Abe’s renewed focus on TPP is almost an accidental result of the US-Japan summit. As we had known earlier, Prime Minister Abe had been almost desperate to have a meeting with the US president since returning to power in order to show how much more effective on the world stage he is than his immediate predecessors. Abe is back! Japan is back!

Ennis reports that Prime Minister Abe’s initial plan was to have a “successful” summit based on some new agreements regarding military policy. If it had been the Bush White House in 2006, that would have indeed been the perfect approach, but the Obama White House in 2013 is, Ennis reports, wary of Abe’s rightwing ideology and its potential to cause unwanted disruptions in Northeast Asia. The realization of this fact in early talks caused Abe to change gears and settle on TPP as the headline theme for his meeting with Obama. Fortunately, the two sides were able to work out a formula that satisfied both parties.

That formula came in the joint statement and reads as follows: “Recognizing that both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities, such as certain agricultural products for Japan and certain manufactured products for the United States, the two Governments confirm that, as the final outcome will be determined during the negotiations, it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations.”

We salute the clever language. It allows Washington to say that Japan is still on the hook and will have to negotiate all sectors of its economy in the TPP talks; but it also allows Tokyo to argue that they can enter the TPP talks without genuine threat to the “sacred areas” of the domestic economy.

As far as Japan entering the TPP talks is concerned, the door is now wide open. Of course, once the concrete terms of TPP are actually being negotiated, the going will get a lot tougher and clever formulas like this will be of less effect. Prime Minister Abe, who sees TPP largely though the US alliance / China containment political lens, may be in for bigger trouble than he is expecting down the road.

For now, though, he looks set to continue his streak of victories. The latest reports say that both the Liberal Democratic Party executives as well as the New Komeito Party will “leave it to the prime minister” to decide. That means they’ll let him have his way for now, but wash their hands of him if it later turns into a debacle.

Finally, it should be noted that a crucial enabling factor for all this is that fears of what an embrace of TPP might mean for the LDP’s electoral performance in July have greatly receded. With Abe’s personal approval rating above 70% and no effective political opposition to speak of, there’s very little now that can stop the ruling party from crushing its opponents in the House of Councillors contest this summer.

Embracing TPP is not going to hurt Abe very much—at least not in the short term.

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