Japan and the United States have undertaken a series of high-level negotiations over the past several weeks in an effort to reach a bilateral agreement that could lead to completion of the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Japanese Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy, Akira Amari, has met with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman both in Tokyo and Washington in an effort to resolve differences prior to President Obama’s visit to Japan this week. Reports indicate that the talks have made some progress. However, large gaps remain that are expected to preclude any breakthrough announcement when the president meets on April 24 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The stated obstacles to concluding the talks have been Japanese reluctance to eliminate tariffs on sensitive agricultural products – beef, dairy, pork, rice, sugar and wheat – and U.S. reluctance to eliminate the 2.5 percent tariff on automobile imports and the 25 percent tariff on light trucks. Each side is very much in the right to ask the other to change these protectionist policies. They have the effect of stifling comparative advantage. They reduce economic welfare by raising consumer costs while curtailing opportunities for efficient producers to make export sales. Ending these trade restrictions would not only help the country requesting the changes, but would also help the economy of the country making the change. What’s not to like about this deal?
Stepping back from the details of the requests and offers, the real problems facing each country are the underlying political realities. Japanese farmers strongly resist reductions in the level of support they receive from tariff protection, and have done so consistently for decades. Those farmers also have been consistent and dedicated supporters of Prime Minister Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). If Japan’s agricultural community becomes sufficiently unhappy with the Abe administration, it is entirely possible that his government could fall. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Abe seems willing to push agricultural policy in the direction of reform. He knows that updating Japan’s agricultural policies is an essential condition for becoming a member of the TPP.
Political considerations in the United States are somewhat different. Yes, the automobile industry would give up tariff protection on imports from Japan. But the reality is that a 2.5 percent duty isn’t all that high in the first place, and the protective effect of the 25-percent duty on light trucks has been undermined significantly by Japanese firms’ investments in U.S. manufacturing facilities. A whole lot of “Japanese” vehicles already are built in the United States. Nonetheless, the U.S. auto industry and its workers are not enamored of tariff reductions, and the Obama administration no doubt keeps this in mind.