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TPP Rush Rattles the Ruling Party

SNA (Tokyo) — “Joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations is a far-sighted policy,” declared Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to his Cabinet and journalists on Friday, “Japan should play a leading role toward a year-end deal.”

The prime minister may be exactly right, but the fact is that very few independent observers have any firm basis for making a judgment. Not only are the TPP talks highly complex, they are also secret and moving very quickly.

What Abe is saying, not only to the general public but even to the ruling party, can be boiled down to the following: “Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

Is the performance of the Japanese negotiators in fact as smooth and skillful as the prime minister’s swagger suggests? Again, we really have no basis for deciding since it is all behind closed doors.

On the other hand, we have noted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s repeated tendency to put a credibility-straining happy face on most every major challenge that Japan is facing. Fukushima Daiichi water leaks? “Completely blocked.” The current condition of the Japanese economy? “Exceptionally good.” Ladies and Gentlemen, Japan is back! It’s not on its way back, but, rather, it is back right now, as we speak, open for business.

During his recent visit to the United States, Prime Minister Abe not only called TPP the “backbone” of his envisaged “Indo-Pacific Century,” but even described it during his Wall Street speech as being “historically inevitable.”

There is, perhaps, both a kind and an unkind interpretation of the mighty rhetoric that this particular Japanese leader tends to engage in.

The upbeat interpretation is that Abe is consciously endeavoring to create more optimism and a bigger buzz about Japan. It could be seen as a rough equivalent to the “Morning in America” campaign utilized with some effect by US President Ronald Reagan in 1984. A major part of almost any successful political leadership is to create an impression of skill and competence. In this specific case, it could be argued that Abenomics is largely built on creating a new public psychology, both at home and abroad, that makes people feel things are headed in the right direction and thus more willing to part with their money. Perhaps this is the lens through which Abe’s far-fetched statements should be viewed.

The other, less kind of interpretation is that this man is simply off his rocker. Reading his earlier writings about “Beautiful Country Japan” or his deep tendency toward historical revisionism, it’s not too difficult to paint a picture of a guy with a questionable grip on reality, especially when those realities suggest less than beautiful things about his country. Indeed, his approach to politics has always been rather phantasmagorical, so it can’t be said that his current rhetoric is actually all that different than before.

At any rate, when one considers how profound an effect that TPP could potentially have on the Japanese system, Abe’s “trust me” doesn’t seem all that persuasive to a lot of people.

In democratic societies it is not the leader figure who must be trusted, but rather facts and evidence. So far, the TPP issue has produced precious little of either.

We are also compelled to question Prime Minister Abe’s peculiar approach to negotiation strategy. If one walks into the bazaar and immediately advertises to everyone that you are simply not going to leave the market before buying an expensive silver set, then are the local merchants likely to give you their lowest price or their highest price?

Likewise, if Abe keeps going to these TPP negotiations while telling everyone that rapidly and successfully concluding the talks is the only outcome that he will accept, then what leverage will Japan really have when facing calmer and shrewder negotiators across the table? Abe’s obvious desire to play the hero in every international engagement makes him a rather easy mark to anyone with a little more patience and subtlety.

Even the Japan Times caught on to a related possibility in a recent editorial: “Regrettably Prime Minister Shinzo Abe does not clearly say how Japan benefits by hurriedly concluding the TPP talks. It’s possible that Japan, while trying to hurriedly wrap up the negotiations, may make unnecessary concessions, thus jeopardizing its national interests.”

Naturally, major sections of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are also alarmed at Prime Minister Abe’s headlong rush for TPP, especially when he showed himself willing to quickly discard the party’s July election promises related to maintaining tariff protections for five “sacred areas” — rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products, and sweeteners.

While still in Bali on the 6th attending the latest round of TPP talks, Koya Nishikawa, chairman of the relevant LDP committee, stated that tariffs on the products of the five “sacred areas” would be reviewed. This statement came as a shock to many of his ruling party colleagues back home, and was seemingly a fulfillment of the worst fears of some rural politicians.

Both LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga played down Nishikawa’s remarks. Ishiba assured party members that the pledge to protect the five “sacred areas” was still intact. Suga stated, somewhat vaguely, that dropping tariffs on these items would be “studied,” but with no assumption that the tariffs would actually be eliminated.

More than one agricultural group expressed anger since they had been specifically and repeatedly promised, even in face-to-face meetings, that the five “sacred areas” were inviolable.

Indeed, it was written right into one of the LDP’s July campaign documents: “Unless the [five sacred areas] are secured, we will not hesitate to leave the TPP negotiations.”

What the LDP campaign document implies and what the tone of the prime minister’s negotiators suggest almost couldn’t be more different.

At any rate, this political battle will be ongoing for some months. Prime Minister Abe has declared that he wants to have the issue sewn up by the end of the year. The opposition parties are eager to open a special Diet committee to rake the government over the coals for betraying the voters. Agricultural lobbies are twisting the arms of their local LDP politicians. And LDP executives are trying to maintain order within the lawmaker ranks.

The results of all these maneuvers are unclear, but it’s probably fair to say that Prime Minister Abe is now facing his first real test of leadership since coming to power last December. This is a test in which fanciful rhetoric alone will not be sufficient to see him through.

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