Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was set to announce yesterday that Japan will join talks on a Pacific trade pact that would oblige the country to undertake major reforms, especially in farming.
The expected announcement confirming plans to seek participation in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is raising protests from farmers opposed to opening protected home markets to foreign competition.
Although rural voters are a traditional bastion of support for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LPD), many in Japan see the pact as a way to overcome stubborn resistance to reforms essential for reviving the stagnant economy. Abe has made such reforms the third prong of his “Abenomics” economic strategy, along with easing monetary policy and boosting public spending.
“TPP is a core issue for Japan right now. The main thing is that Abenomics, the plan of getting Japan moving and growing again, does not only depend on printing more money or on fiscal spending, but really depends on liberalizing the economy,” said Martin Schulz, an economist at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo.
“For that, TPP is a core part because it involves all sectors, from energy, to agriculture, insurances, the car industry as well. That would be a big step for Japan,” Schulz said.
Japan’s agricultural lobby is small, but politically powerful.
However, after two decades of stagnation, calls by big business groups, such as the Keidanren, to join the trade pact or miss out on easier access to key export markets appear to have outweighed objections from the farm sector.
News reports yesterday said the government estimates that joining the Pacific trade agreement would boost Japan’s GDP by as much as ￥3 trillion (US$31 billion) a year, equal to about 0.7 percent of GDP in the first year.
With Japan’s participation, the free trade zone “would cover basically 40 percent of [world] GDP. It would be a very, very big area and it would have a significant impact,” Schulz said.
Apart from the imperative for reforming the economy, Abe’s agreement to push ahead with trade liberalization also reflects geopolitical realities: Japan’s status as the leading US ally in Asia also swayed the decision to participate in the trade talks.
“We have no choice,” Bank of America-Merrill Lynch’s Masayuki Kichikawa said. “This is kind of a very delicate matter for Abe.”
That angers some groups who object to foreign influence over domestic policy, including those who view the plan as a US scheme to usurp Japan’s sovereignty.
“[US President Barack] Obama has threatened Japan and forced us into joining TPP,” Takaaki Tabuchi, a financial consultant, told a group of about 20 protesters who gathered near Tokyo’s Shibuya train station on Thursday.
“Preserve our livelihoods. Reject TPP,” they chanted, largely ignored by passers-by.
The protests this time, including a big gathering of farmers who conducted a sit-in at Tokyo’s Hibiya Park on Tuesday, appear to lack the scale or passion of past anti-TPP demonstrations.
Abe’s reassurances that Tokyo will not remove protections for strategically sensitive industries, such as rice farming, may have somewhat placated the Zenchu, or Japan’s Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun said in a report yesterday.
LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba said Abe told party leaders yesterday that it is “now or never” to join the talks.
He cited Abe as saying Japan would miss its change to have any say in negotiations on the trade pact if it waited until after upper house parliamentary elections, where the TPP decision could prove a liability for the ruling party.
The Obama administration has said it hopes to wrap up negotiations by the year’s end. Including Japan is likely to slow that process.
In Washington, Democratic lawmakers presented a letter addressed to Obama raising concerns that the pact may threaten the US auto industry.
They contend that Japanese auto exports to the US could increase if the US eliminates its current 2.5 percent car tariffs and 25 percent truck tariffs.