South China Morning Post

Tokyo sees US trade proposal as underminin­g its own CPTPP efforts

- Julian Ryall in Tokyo Additional reporting by Bloomberg

Joe Biden is expected to receive a warm welcome when he arrives in Japan later this month for the first time as US president, although the reception for his new economic integratio­n plan is likely to be far chillier.

Biden’s visit will coincide with the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which is part of the Biden administra­tion’s efforts to counter China’s clout in Asia.

The new initiative comes after the US withdrawal from talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnershi­p (TPP) regional trade agreement under his predecesso­r as president, Donald Trump.

Biden is set to make the announceme­nt during his first visit to allies South Korea and Japan since taking office, which will run from May 20-24.

While the US sees the IPEF as a complement­ary economic pact, Japan perceives it underminin­g the Comprehens­ive and Progressiv­e Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnershi­p (CPTPP), which Tokyo worked to develop after the 2017 withdrawal of the United States from its predecesso­r, the TPP.

Two former ministers, who remain key members of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said Tokyo was deeply uneasy with the US proposal.

Speaking at the Brookings Institutio­n in Washington last week, former foreign minister Taro Kono and ex-justice minister Takashi Yamashita said Japan had made deep concession­s to ensure the TPP could be signed in February 2016 by the original 11 Pacific Rim nations – only for Trump to walk away less than a year later.

Kono said: “Now the Biden administra­tion is talking about the Indo-Pacific economic whatever, I would say forget about it.”

Yamashita added that with the new pact having the option for the US to ignore any parts of the framework that it disagreed with – such as carbon emissions or trade regulation­s – it would make the IPEF weak and only serve to make government­s in the region question Washington’s commitment to its own plan.

The original TPP set such high standards on a number of metrics that were important to Tokyo and Washington, including labour standards, environmen­tal protection and intellectu­al property rights, that China would be effectivel­y excluded from the agreement, Kono added.

And while that ambition was never explicitly declared as an aim of the alliance, it aligned with broader US and Japanese foreign policy in isolating Beijing as it became an economic and military rival in the region.

Both Kono and Yamashita said the optimum solution would be for the US to change tack and sign up for the revised CPTPP. But analysts say that an administra­tion that appears more beleaguere­d by the week will not be able to reverse that course.

“There is not a snowball in hell’s chance that Biden will be able to get anything through Congress to rejoin the CPTPP,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

The IPEF did not appear to be “a direct rival” to the CPTPP, he added, although “there is some concern about what it actually entails as some of the concepts are still quite vague”.

While details of the new framework remain unclear, it is not expected to involve reductions in tariffs. The framework has already been criticised by senators from both parties in the US as too narrow to achieve its objectives.

Many East Asian nations that the US expects to sign up may be reluctant as they fear being caught between Washington and Beijing, since China is for many their primary trade partner.

For Japan, Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP had left a bruise,

Kingston added. “Japan put a lot of effort into the agreement and getting it right, and then he pulled the plug,” he said. “That left a bad feeling about the US as an ally of Japan.”

Tokyo took the leading role in the successor agreement, whose 11 signatory nations have combined economies representi­ng 13.4 per cent of global gross domestic product.

Other government­s are in the process of joining the pact, with mainland China, Taiwan and Ecuador all submitting formal membership applicatio­ns and Great Britain – despite its geographic­al distance from Asia-Pacific – also moving onto the second phase of negotiatio­ns.

South Korea has commenced applicatio­n procedures while Thailand, the Philippine­s, Indonesia and Colombia have also announced their intention to join.

For Tokyo, the applicatio­n from Beijing for membership is a cause for concern and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is likely to make the point to President Biden that should Beijing be admitted, it may very well have sufficient influence to assume the leadership of the bloc, which would completely undermine the original intention of the alliance and permit Beijing to set trade and investment rules that serves its needs.

The most effective way to nullify that threat, Kishida will say, would be for the US to return.

“Japan is feeling anxious, and it is clear why,” said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at Temple University.

“Tokyo worked so hard for TPP to be a success and then had to take on the leadership role for CPTPP to work. I think they are asking themselves what are the difference­s between CPTPP and IPEF and why the US needs to introduce this new plan now.”

“I can see that it makes sense to the US to have its own trade agreements and why they want Japan to join them, but this will only serve to diminish TPP and everything that Japan has done,” she said.

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