Yves here. We’ve been giving regular updates, with the considerable help of our man in Japan Clive, on how the the prospects for Japan signing up for the TransPacific Partnership look extremely slim. Mind you, “extremely slim” is not impossible, but the reason we deem the probability to be that low is that the Administration appears unwilling to bargain at all, let alone offer Japan some critical and large concessions that it requires to sign up. And since Japan is a linchpin to the entire deal, if Japan is a no-go, you can kiss the TransPacific Partnership goodbye.
These TransPacific Partnership discussions have also given yours truly, and even more so our real expert Clive, the opportunity to do some cross-cultural translating, which I personally enjoy. The Japanese are a sufficiently alien culture that you are forced to suspend or retrain your assumptions about how things work. So to watch the US Trade Representative, which along with the State Department, ought to be a US agency particularly attuned to how Japan needs special handling, instead do the equivalent of repeatedly step on a rake and get smacked in the face, is entertaining in a perverse way. How can they NOT know that what they are doing is counterproductive? And how can they NOT course correct when it should be obvious that what they are doing isn’t working?
However, even though, as we have discussed, the USTR has acted in a way almost guaranteed to offend the Japanese, the government has reasons for being cool on the TransPacific Partnership yet having to feign otherwise. And they aren’t terribly mysterious either, even though they do vary with US baseline assumptions.
By Clive, a regular Cfdtrade commenter and self-confessed Japan-o-phile
One reader asked why it was that, in the face of seemingly tricky terrain in Washington as well as an apparent lack of convincing reasons why the TransPacific Partnership might be of any benefit at all to Japan, Prime Minister Abe is sticking with it.
The simple answer is that politicians, in Japan as elsewhere, want to appear to be in control of events and not at the whim of them. Abe has sunk political capital into the TPP and it is major plank of his (groan) “reform” agenda. He wants to be seen to be getting that agenda implemented. Of course, it is a political matter and thus subject to political considerations like you can’t, in Japan, simply swing a wrecking ball across the entire domestic agricultural industry as the U.S. is demanding Japan should do.
A slightly deeper question is, how did the TPP get on Abe’s (and Japan’s) agenda in the first place? There’s multiple factors involved there, I’ll skim through them here but each is a topic in its own right.
Firstly, it is probably very difficult for U.S. readers to appreciate what, exactly, it is like to be in a small-ish country with a big regional power nearby. For people in the U.S. you’re the regional power, so it’s like trying to look at a painting while you’re subject in it. It’s very tricky to shift your perspective to view the situation as outsiders do. But if you live in a small country with a big, sometimes belligerent neighbour, it’s instinctive to form alliances. And that can lead you into being not altogether fussy about who those alliances are with and what they entail. Say what you like about the EU, it has demonstrated the ability of countries to form a reasonably coherent group on the world stage and act as a buffer against much larger nation states. What the EU has done with that power is, of course, debatable. Few here would I think disagree that it has ended up debasing what its stated aims are. But that doesn’t change the fact that economic and political alliances can profoundly alter the geopolitical landscape. For good or for ill. Japan doesn’t want to miss the boat — even if we might think it’s the Titanic.
Secondly, Japan’s relationship with other countries is pretty unique. It’s instinct is to be isolationist and separate (the Japanese people do sometimes relish their perception of their own uniqueness; they are pretty unique, but the world is full of unique peoples so even though they’re unique, they’re not unique in being unique. I do hope there weren’t too many reader casualties as a result of that last sentence — I know what I mean anyway…). But Japan
knows its own history and fully appreciates that this isolationist tendency has brought it to the brink of two well-understood existential crises in the recent past (I won’t cover these in detail but they are this and this ). The defining characteristic of both these events was that, unbeknown to Japan, it had become vulnerable to technological advances of which it knew little or nothing. It thought it had some cards still to play, but in reality it was a busted flush. The atomic bombings and the Black Ships really did literally and figuratively come at Japan from out the blue.
Japan does not want to be in that position again. This permeates a lot of Japanese thinking. Since the end of WWII, it has deliberately sought information on what it considers the best in current external expertise and know-how on a variety of subjects. It does not, indiscriminately, use non-Japanese consulting firms. But it does use them selectively, where it considers that it might not have the sort of knowledge and experience it needs to have. Of course, sometimes as with any consulting it gets good and urgently needed advice, sometimes it gets bad advice. The Japanese don’t usually take such inputs hook, line and sinker. But they do consider them and they are given credibility (not least because of the above lessons from history). It is also conscious of its relationship with its allies, especially the U.S. Japan implemented the Plaza Accord pretty much exactly as the U.S. wished. That was in some respects very bad advice, but to a lot of Japanese, the U.S. is the most successful economy so it must know what it is doing.
These, then, are the main factors influencing Japan’s continued engagement with the TPP process. Non-Japanese may not entirely understand them, much less agree with them. Quite a lot of Japanese don’t agree with them either. But they do offer an explanation.