[Editor’s column] Never victimize agriculture (Sept. 28, 2018)

Tsuneyoshi Fujii, head of agricultural policies department, The Japan Agricultural News

Talks between Japan and the United States on a so-called Trade Agreement on Goods (TAG) have progressed rapidly after U.S. President Donald Trump indicated he is ready to impose additional tariffs on Japanese vehicle imports and Japan scrambled to avoid the move. This is a total nuisance for the agriculture sector. We should never allow agriculture to be victimized for the sake of preventing a potential blow on the auto industry.

To begin with, the joint statement issued by Japan and the United States following a meeting by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump in September indicates that the two nations are merely putting off dealing with conflicting issues.

Japan’s economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi said the two leaders confirmed that additional tariffs on Japanese vehicles will not be imposed during negotiations, stressing the phrase in the joint statement which said the two nations will “refrain from taking measures against the spirit of this joint statement.”

We can interpret this, however, as a possibility that the U.S. might use the potential tariffs on autos as a bargaining chip against Japan if Trump thinks no sufficient results are coming out of the negotiations.

Motegi also emphasized that Japan told the U.S. it will not liberalize its markets beyond what was agreed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, citing the joint statement which said: “For Japan, with regard to agricultural, forestry, and fishery products, outcomes related to market access as reflected in Japan’s previous economic partnership agreements constitute the maximum level.”

But this is written in the joint statement as Japan’s position that the U.S. “will respect,” together with the U.S.’ position that “market access outcomes in the motor vehicle sector will be designed to increase production and jobs in the United States in the motor vehicle industries.”

Even if these conditions were not met, can we still expect the two nations to keep the promise that Japan’s markets will not be liberalized beyond the TPP levels? It looks like the auto industry will be the issue after all.

The automobile sector is Japan’s key industry. There are many auto-related industries based in regions such as Tohoku, Kyushu and Hokkaido. But agriculture is also a key industry in rural areas, and it is illogical for the Abe administration – which advocates regional revitalization – to try to use agriculture to solve the problem of the auto sector.

The trade war between Japan and the U.S. began with negotiations on the textile issues, which resulted in an agreement in January 1972 which had been a trade-off of reducing Japan’s textile exports to the U.S. in return for the reversion of Okinawa. We must not let a similar thing happen again regarding agriculture and automobiles.

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