Japan rolled out the red carpet for US President Donald Trump this week, winning Tokyo a brief respite in its trade battle with Washington, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces pressure to deliver concessions after a summer election.
Trump on Tuesday wound up a four-day state visit featuring golf, sumo, a state dinner with Emperor Naruhito and inspections of US and Japanese warships meant to showcase the alliance, but shadowed by a feud over the two-way trade gap.
After his Monday summit with Abe, Trump had said he expected the allies to be “announcing some things, probably in August, that will be very good for both countries” on trade.
On Tuesday, however, Japanese Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said the US leader’s comment probably reflected his hope for quick progress in the trade talks.
“When you look at the exact wording of his comments, you can see that the president was voicing his hopes of swift progress in talks toward something that is mutually beneficial,” Motegi told reporters at a regular cabinet meeting.
Concessions on trade before an upper house election in July could upset Japanese voters, especially farmers, who are important backers of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, although consumers might welcome cheaper food products.
Japanese officials have denied that the two countries had agreed to reach a trade deal by August.
Opposition parties said Japanese farmers would be in the line of fire after the poll, adding that Trump had said “agriculture and beef were heavily in play” on Twitter on Sunday.
“Trump’s comments can only be taken to mean that Japan has in fact made major concessions on agriculture and livestock,” Yukio Edano, head of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) told a news conference this week.
“We cannot allow them to fight the upper house election by hiding this,” Japanese media quoted Edano as saying.
Washington wants Tokyo to cut tariffs on US farm products to restore their competitiveness after Trump shunned an 11-nation Pacific trade pact. Japan has signalled it might cut the levies to levels in the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP).
Some experts saw Trump’s remark that he had “nothing to do” with TPP as suggesting he wanted deeper cuts, while Motegi stressed the two countries had agreed in a September deal that market access steps, or tariff cuts, for farm goods would not exceed those of Japan’s other deals, such as TPP.
Trump has also declared that some imported vehicles and parts posed a national security threat but delayed a decision on imposing tariffs for as long as six months, allowing more time for trade talks with Japan and the European Union.
Japan opposes any limits on its exports, which would violate World Trade Organization rules.
Motegi, who is in charge of trade talks, said his meeting in Tokyo last week with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer made clear differences remain, but no timetable has been set for further talks.
Some diplomatic experts said Abe had probably got the best results he could hope for, despite worries over trade and other policies, such as North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.
“You cannot embrace this President with nuance. If you are going to do it, you might as well embrace him fully,” said Toshihiro Nakayama, a Japan fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.
“Overall, I would say that it was a successful ceremonial event. What more can you expect?”