Sunday, November 13, 2011

Message Management Missing in Noda’s Honolulu Trade Initiative

I’d been telling everyone who would listen that Noda would take Japan into the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) FTA negotiations if only because there was no way that he could back down without becoming the third lame-duck prime minister in the first three years of the Democratic Party of Japan’s hold on power. He made me a little nervous with his one-day delay of the announcement, but he did came through and the threat of secession from DPJ dissidents proved to be a bluff…for now. The TPP negotiations should take another year or more, which means that Noda does not have any related legislative action to worry about during the 2012 regular Diet session. However, the opposition will have a couple of matters with which it will test the prime minister to see if they can erode public trust in his governance. And his DPJ opponents will not be happy about them either.

First, he reportedly gave favorable notice regarding Japanese import restrictions on U.S. beef. Actually I’ve been bewildered by recent talk regarding the Noda administration’s willingness to revisit this issue, specifically to raise the import eligibility of U.C. cattle from 20 months old to 30. Leaving aside my personal views on the issue itself, it seemed odd to me that the Noda administration would make a valuable concession even before the TPP negotiations had started. I can think of no other explanation than that it was an “omiyage,” a present, to make the Noda-Obama go smoothly. Maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t, who knows. I’ve always believed that this tactic, long favored by the Japanese authorities, is demeaning and serves mainly to keep the Japanese political masters happy—whee, I got a lot of applause when I addressed the plenary!, President So-and-So shook my hand! that kind of thing—but that’s beside the point. The problem here is that the Noda administration has so far given no official indication that the beef issue is in play. In fact, the news that Noda notified Obama took the Japanese media by surprise. There’s a good political, if unscientific, reason that Japan is one of the few countries to maintain a 30-month age limit on properly processed U.S. beef. The Japanese public was scared out of its wits by the mad cow disease breakout and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had to go well beyond what the science around the issue required. (In our defense, we are no more (or less) irrational than our American/British/Chinese/…Luxembourgian/…/South Korean/…/Zimbabwean friends. It’s just that we each care insanely about different things. Okay, maybe Luxembourgers don’t, though who knows…) This will cause problems. After all, this is a food safety issue. It has obvious international ramifications, but first and foremost, it’s a matter of domestic regulation. I think that Noda got it ass backwards, and the media, the opposition and his DPJ opponents are going to (rightfully in my opinion) take him to task for it.

Second, the White House announced that President Obama “welcomed Prime Minister Noda's statement that he would put all goods, as well as services, on the negotiating table for trade liberalization.” Now this may seem to you mere recognition of reality. After all, if Noda had said that agriculture, or anything else for that matter, was off the table, his bid to take Japan into the TPP negotiations would have collapsed on the dry dock. However, lobbies and Congress feed off trade issues, so the White House in its press secretary readout obviously did what it could to ensure smooth sailings as far as officially accepting Japan as a TPP negotiating member with as few domestic strings as possible. (A negotiator always looks to expand his/her mandate.) The Japanese side, incredibly, not only failed to anticipate the White House spin but did not put out any statement regarding the bilateral meeting except a bland, all-points-covered summary from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). The prime minister’s team—Kantei?—missing in action. (See if you can find anything at the Kantei website.) It wound up issuing a denial that Noda had said any such thing. Bad for relations with the White House, and fodder for opposition guns when the Diet resumes operations on the Prime Minister’s return from Honolulu.

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