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U.S. and Japan Improve Security Ties. On Trade? Not So Much.

The United States and Japan agreed to overhaul their security relationship. But a long-awaited trade deal still eludes the long time allies.

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President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are in agreement on a overhaul of their security relationship. On trade, despite reassurances from both leaders, they appear to remain far apart.

Five years into negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping 12-nation trade pact meant to improve market access for American goods in Asia and vice versa, Tokyo and Washington — the agreement’s most important negotiators — have to close significant gaps to get the deal done by the end of Obama’s term. Otherwise both nations risk having to wait until the next U.S. president takes office.

During a White House press conference, both leaders said they were confident the pact would get done.

President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are in agreement on a overhaul of their security relationship. On trade, despite reassurances from both leaders, they appear to remain far apart.

Five years into negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping 12-nation trade pact meant to improve market access for American goods in Asia and vice versa, Tokyo and Washington — the agreement’s most important negotiators — have to close significant gaps to get the deal done by the end of Obama’s term. Otherwise both nations risk having to wait until the next U.S. president takes office.

During a White House press conference, both leaders said they were confident the pact would get done.

“Japan and the United States, with President Barack Obama and myself, we want to exert leadership to bring about an early conclusion of the TPP,” Abe said.

Obama added, “It’s gonna be enforceable. It’s gonna open up markets that currently are not fully opened to U.S. businesses. It’s gonna be good for the U.S. economy.”

But Mireya Solís, a senior fellow and Japan expert at the Brookings Institute, said the remaining points of contention — rice and cars — would be the most difficult areas for diplomats to find agreement. She called the American grain and cars from automakers in Detroit the “usual suspects” in trade beefs between the United States and Japan.

“Japanese culture is very sensitive to U.S. autos and auto parts,” Solís told Foreign Policy.

“Also at issue is the size of the rice quota that the United States would have in the Japanese market.”

Those closely watching the trade deal were hoping Obama and Abe would announce a breakthrough on these sticking points. “I think they both tried to show they they feel optimistic to reassert the commitment to get this done. But it’s a little concerning that they didn’t announce they moved past their differences,” Solís said.

A joint “vision statement” noted “significant progress that has been made in the bilateral negotiations.” But the lack of specificity in both Obama and Abe’s comments Tuesday seemed to indicate few concrete moves toward a deal took place.

Abe said he would like to “make efforts” to get the deal done. Obama, for his part, acknowledged the difficulty in getting a trade agreement done in Washington but said he was confident the deal would end up being the “most progressive trade bill in history.”

Maggie X. Chen, an associate professor of economics at George Washington University, told FP that the lack of public specificity does not necessarily mean progress is lacking.

“The whole negotiations have been taking place in secret the whole time, so we don’t know the details,” she said. “I’m not really surprised by the lack of specificity in the statement.”

But even if the sides are getting closer, a lot of work remains to be done in a relatively little amount of time. Negotiations over trade pacts typically take years, not months. And even if Japan and Washington get on the same page, the other 10 nations involved must agree to the deal. It also needs to be approved by Congress, which, in this instance, might not be that difficult — Republicans have indicated that they would fast track the deal. But Obama would have to overcome objections from his own party and well as labor unions and environmental groups.

All of this has to get done before Obama leaves office, giving the White House a little more than year and a half to seal the deal. If not done by then, the next president, and his or her team of diplomats, would forced to pick up where Obama’s negotiators left off.

“There are a number of things that all need to fall into place in a really tight timeline,” Solís said.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

 

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