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Editorial: Lopsided concessions give lie to Abe's claim Japan-US trade pact a 'win-win'

The Japanese government's highest legislative priority going into the present Diet session was passage of the trade deal recently negotiated with the United States. Following its Dec. 4 approval in a vote in the House of Councillors, the deal surmounted its final legislative hurdle. As the pact does not need to go before the U.S. Congress, it will take effect on New Year's Day.

The largest bone of contention during the Diet debate was whether Washington had bullied Japan into a lopsided deal, reason being that while Tokyo agreed to reduce tariffs on U.S. beef and pork imports, there are no provisions to drop duties on Japanese cars headed to the American market.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has insisted that the bilateral trade pact is a "win-win," because the deal is conditional on eliminating the tariffs on Japanese vehicles in the future. However, an examination of the agreement text reveals only a commitment to future negotiations on the issue, nothing more. And it is very difficult to imagine U.S. President Donald Trump, a man who has threatened to hike tariffs on Japanese cars, ever coming around to the idea of dropping them altogether. The onus was on the Abe administration to give the Diet a deeply compelling explanation for how this trade deal could be called a "win-win."

Abe and his allies have done nothing of the sort. They have failed to provide any solid proof at all of American commitments on auto tariffs, resorting instead to ad nauseam repetition of passages from the agreement. If the duties on Japanese cars are in fact slated to end, then at the very least the Abe government should be able to give the public a timeframe for that to occur, which it has not done. To shout from the rooftops that this deal is fair, then, pushes credibility to the breaking point.

The government's public estimates of the pact's economic effect on Japan are premised on the assumption that the U.S. will drop the auto tariffs. Opposition parties demanded that the administration also release figures assuming the duties stay in place, but it has refused to do so.

The Japan-U.S. trade agreement will have a direct impact on the lives of the Japanese people. The government is thus obligated to reveal all its figures relating to the deal, and to persuade the public of the agreement's merits.

Another point of concern is the scant time allotted to debate the deal in the Diet, despite its enormous implications for the Japanese economy and citizenry. Discussion in both houses of the national legislature amounted to less than 30 hours combined, or around 20% of the time given three years ago to the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement -- which the U.S. was party to before Trump dumped it in the early days of his administration.

Trump is keen to get the Tokyo-Washington pact on the books as soon as possible, so that he can boast of the accomplishment in the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign. It is simply outrageous that the Abe government would put Trump's political priorities ahead of giving the Japanese people a proper explanation of such an important pact.

The basic principle behind trade liberalization is that each party should open up even its most important economic sectors, and thus energize the economies of all. In that spirit, when Japanese and U.S. negotiators are expected to meet once more in spring next year or later for trade talks, Tokyo should demand that an end to the U.S. auto tariffs be made explicit.

When the U.S. dropped out of the TPP, there was some doubt that the remaining 11 nations would be able to hold it together. Japan led the way to getting it signed, sealed and delivered despite Washington's abrupt exit. That being the case, it is very strange indeed that Japan would then go ahead and ink a separate, bilateral agreement with the United States, the linchpin country of the entire Pacific area. Surely, it would damage American interests if instead the TPP had been expanded to more countries. Therefore, it is important to encourage Washington to rejoin the pact in the future.

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