The signs are pointing away from a Japanese commitment to TPP negotiations when Prime Minister Abe visits Washington, most likely in January. Yesterday (Dec. 28), an anti-TPP LDP rally drew over 180 out of its 378 Diet members. Meanwhile, the same day, Shigeru Ishiba, the LDP secretary-general, stated that the LDP would have to make up its mind by the House of Councillors election in July while Abe himself stated in a Yomiuri interview that he would consult with President Obama on the matter during the January visit.
Abe could still commit the Japanese government on the occasion while making a more specific domestic promise to protect rice farmers and other “national interests”—maybe throw a sop to small medical clinics?—throughout the negotiations, but I’m not seeing the usually cautious prime minister laying the groundwork for such an event. The timing is crucial because the US Congress will take up to three months to decide whether to confer authority on the president to enter into negotiations with Japan. Any further delay means that there is a good chance that all or most of the outstanding issues will have been settled by the time that Japan is allowed to join the negotiations, leaving it with a take-it-or-leave-it, done deal.
This no-decision scenario has several negative implications for the Abe administration.
First, it will disappoint Japanese manufacturers, who find themselves disadvantaged vis-à-vis their South Korean competitors, who can export their products to the US market duty-free. It will certainly ease their conscience as they shift ever more of their business activities overseas.
Second, the mainstream media, reliant on the metropolitan markets, will largely fault him for kicking the can. This issue is unlikely to be the decisive reason for all but a few urban voters, but few issues are, as we learned in the House of Representatives (HoR) election, where, for instance, the parties most closely identified with an anti-nuclear stance did poorly. Nevertheless, it will be an early and substantive negative regarding leadership that becomes part of the individual voter’s media cloud in which that voter makes up his decision come election time.
Third, it will surely disappoint the White House, which would be left with an inconclusive outcome on the one issue that could make the January summit something more than a courtesy call. Abe’s enthusiasm regarding collective self-defense will be welcomed in the abstract, but the Japanese authorities will certain require much more time bringing coalition partner Komeito around before they actually make up their mind on that.
Fourth, it will put a damper on the FTA negotiations with China and South Korea, who already have more than enough domestic issues around any formal undertaking with Japan and will be even less motivated to move forward if an early Japan-US deal on the TPP negotiations appears unlikely.
But Abe is not a strong prime minister. The conventional wisdom is that the LDP won despite Abe, and the polls leading up to the election and the actual vote tallies back that up. Thus, his political capital is much smaller than the HoR supermajority that the LDP-Komeito coalition enjoys. It is looking increasingly likely that he will accept the less definite negatives flowing from a non-decision rather than face open rebellion from the DP rank-and-file so early in his administration.
Personally, I hope that he proves me wrong.