[Editorial] New Japan-U.S. trade talks must never lead to another FTA (Aug. 12)

Earlier this month, Japan and the United States held their first meeting under what they call “free, fair and reciprocal” trade talks, and the U.S. called for launching negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA).

Japan should never accept a Japan-U.S. FTA, as it will deal a heavy blow to Japan’s agriculture. The government and the ruling coalition should make clear their stance of adamantly refusing such a deal when they engage in future negotiations.

Economy revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who is also in charge of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral accord, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will lead the dialogue, dubbed the FFR talks. The two governments plan to hold a couple of meetings so that they can announce some kind of achievement at the bilateral summit meeting scheduled in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

In the latest meeting, Lighthizer asked that the two countries start a bilateral negotiation, apparently in view of entering the FTA, something that he has repeatedly been calling for.

The Japanese side urged the U.S. to return to the TPP framework, and the meeting ended there. But the U.S. is sure to continue making their demands, as President Donald Trump’s administration is desperate to maintain the support of voters ahead of the midterm elections in November.

If the two nations are to enter negotiations for a bilateral FTA, it will be unavoidable for Japan’s agriculture to suffer a serious setback. Japan has already agreed to an unprecedented level of market liberalization under the TPP pact, including abolishment of tariffs on 82 percent of agricultural products and concessions on sensitive items. The Trump administration is highly likely to ask for further opening of the Japanese market.

Trump had long been criticizing what was agreed upon under the TPP pact – former President Barack Obama’s signature trade agreement – and signed an order withdrawing the U.S. from the framework right after he became president. But a withdrawal from the TPP deal means the U.S. could fall behind its rival agricultural exporters such as Australia, because the U.S. will not be subject to tariff cuts on such items as beef to be implemented under the agreement. This could frustrate agricultural organizations and threaten farmer support for Trump.

Can Japan continue refusing the U.S. demand? There are speculations that Washington might try to bring Japan into negotiations for a bilateral FTA, using auto tariffs as a bargaining chip.

One concern is that the Japanese government has not shown a clear stance of refusing such negotiations. Government officials have repeatedly said at the ordinary Diet session that they do not regard the FFR talks as the preliminary discussions for a bilateral FTA, but they did not rule out the possibility of starting the negotiations in the future.

The government should not enter negotiations without clearly setting its stance. The government and the ruling coalition should make its policies clear before holding further talks with the U.S. It is also necessary to assess the possible impact of a bilateral FTA on domestic agriculture and share the risk with the farming sector.

The 11-member TPP accord without the U.S. is likely to take effect early next year, as well as the FTA with the European Union. If Japan is to sign a bilateral accord with the U.S. in addition to the two trade agreements, there is no way the nation can raise its food self-sufficiency rate which is dwindling at 38 percent. The government will not be able to avoid being blamed for dodging responsibility of securing stable food supply.

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