Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reluctantly agreed to enter into trade negotiations with the United States, whose president has repeatedly pressured Tokyo to accept new terms in bilateral trade.
“President [Donald] Trump and I agreed to start talks for free, fair, and reciprocal trade deals,” Abe said at a joint news conference after a meeting hosted by the US president in Florida on Wednesday.
Japan first came under pressure over trade matters by the US when Trump took office. He opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a then-12-nation free trade pact that had been negotiated by Trump’s predecessor and that Trump withdrew from during his first weeks as president.
Tokyo then pressed for new terms with the 11 remaining countries, forging a new deal without the US that it believes would collapse if Japan makes another deal with America.
In his Wednesday remarks, Abe stressed that Tokyo would not commit to a bilateral deal with the US, or a broader trans-Pacific pact. But it was not clear what the negotiations he had agreed to would serve if no new bilateral deal would come out of them.
“On the US side, they are interested in a bilateral deal… Our country’s position is that TPP is the best for both of our countries,” the Japanese prime minister told reporters.
Trump stressed that he wanted a one-on-one deal.
“I don’t want to go back into TPP, but if they offered us a deal that I can’t refuse on behalf of the United States, I would do it,” Trump said as he stood next to Abe.
“But I like bilateral better. I think it’s better for our country. I think it’s better for our workers, and I much would prefer a bilateral deal, a deal directly with Japan.”
It was unclear how Trump’s wish for a bilateral deal would be reconciled with Abe’s refusal to commit to exactly such a thing.
Neither of them explained how they aimed to proceed in the new negotiations while they wanted opposite things.
“We have a massive deficit with Japan,” the US president said. “The word ‘reciprocal’ is that when you have a car come in, we charge you a tax. When we have a car go through Japan, which aren’t allowed to go there, we have to take down the barriers and we have to pay the same tax.”
“But that goes for other countries too,” Trump added, vowing to “weed” the deficit down.
The US president last month imposed a 25-percent tariff on steel imports and a 10-percent tariff on aluminum imports. Washington later granted temporary exemptions from those tariffs to several US allies but not Japan.
Abe is in a precarious situation, facing decreasing approval ratings at home — which could further go down if he is seen as too soft on trade with the US — while having to avoid upsetting America as its main ally.