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Government Warms to TPP Without United States

SNA (Tokyo) — Democratic Party Secretary-General Yoshihiko Noda memorably denounced it last November as being akin to “The Beatles without John Lennon,” but after many months of appearing to fully agree with him, the Abe administration is now warming to the notion of moving forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact with the eleven nations other than the United States.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga signaled this change of thinking in an interview on Saturday: “We have a feeling that the eleven-nation framework should be given weight.”

TPP was signed in February 2016 by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam, but incoming US President Donald Trump quickly disavowed the trade pact in spite of much lobbying by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and others. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party forced ratification of the agreement through the Diet at the end of last year, in spite it appearing to become a dead letter.

The established rules on the effectuation of TPP will have to be changed to allow it to go forward without the United States, but some countries have been advocating this approach for many months.

Previously, the Abe government had spurred the idea. When Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull encouraged Prime Minister Abe in January to move forward on this basis, the response of Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda was blunt: “Without the United States, the TPP pact is meaningless, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has clearly said. The fundamental balance of interests is lost without the United States,” he declared.

Much of the Abe administration’s enthusiasm about TPP has always been the way it would tie Pacific nations to the security interests of the United States while excluding China. This factor is why they cannot work up anything near the same kind of enthusiasm for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes China but not the United States.

However, this political push comes from levels of the government beyond simply the Abe administration. The original embrace of TPP came during the time of the Democratic Party of Japan administration of Naoto Kan. Proactive engagement toward TPP originated in Foreign Ministry, which was looking for an alternative to former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s proposals for an East Asian Community, which the then-Hillary Clinton State Department was vociferously opposed to.

TPP negotiations are set to resume early next month in Canada, with Japan newly-recommitted to taking the process seriously.