TPP: Following a Pattern?

As a follow up to my previous post on Eamonn Fingleton’s “Blindisde,” I wanted to share the author’s opinion of Japan’s dealings with trade negotiations.

Blindside Spine

Once again, it is a bit of a conspiracy theory, but for me it was probably the most interesting assertion in the book since Japan has just started participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks after having secured the needed approval from all the other countries currently involved.  The TPP promises to be a massive free-trade agreement that will in principle eliminate all tariffs and non-tariff barriers between its members, as well as do various shady things like make corporations formally superior to sovereign nations.  Since the talks are held in secret, it is difficult for members of the public such as you and me to actually know what the agreement entails at this point.  Suffice to say, it is a pretty scary sounding agreement, especially when one considers the damage NAFTA did.

But in “Blindside” Fingleton deals with the Uruguay Round of world trade talks in the early nineties.  His assertion is that Japan successfully steered the talks (in regard to Japan) away from things it cared about and that were truly important to the nation (namely, all of its hard industries), by setting up rice imports as the crucial thing that Japan could not possibly compromise on:

“Tokyo’s strategy always is to focus American press attention as much as possible on certain trade barriers that Japan secretly intends to relax in the forthcoming talks.  These barriers invariably are of little significance to Japan’s industrial strategy, but, for the benefit of the American press, Tokyo portrays them as ‘politically sensitive’ or ‘sacred’ ones whose relaxation will entail almost unbearable costs within Japan.”

Again, at the time he was talking of rice.  Now, twenty years later, it is again farm products that the focus seems to be on, with Japan’s farmers’ organizations campaigning hard to keep Japan out of the TPP.  It is eerie how similar this is:

“Thus Tokyo launched a massive English-language public relations campaign portraying the rice policy as America’s key trade grievance.  Meanwhile, it set about exaggerating the degree of domestic opposition to reforming the policy.  In particular, it portrayed Japan’s supposedly all-powerful farm lobby as an implacable foe of even the slightest liberalization.”

Then, once everyone is focused on this relatively unimportant issue, Japan backs down, gives in to demands to liberalize its farming sector a bit (although it could be some other unimportant area in the future), and all other areas of Japanese industry are safe, America’s bargaining capital having been used up on this one issue.

Meanwhile, Japan’s concession is seen at home as once again being pushed around by the West.  The farmers (or whoever) will just have to put up with it because Japan is just not very good at standing up to America, they are led to believe:

“All Japan’s public relations stressing the ‘sacredness’ of the rice issue made the extremely modest 8 percent opening of the market look like a triumph for the Americans.  The impression that the Americans had achieved a famous victory was in no way mitigated when politicians in Japan immediately denounced Japan’s trade negotiators as ‘incompetents.’  Such denunciations are a standard part of Tokyo’s negotiating script:  for decades Japan’s trade victories had been portrayed at home as defeats in which Japanese negotiators allowed themselves to be ‘bullied’ by the Americans.”

As I said, there may be a bit too much conspiracy here for many people.  But then, using a decoy is not that unique or complicated of an idea; why should it be beyond the realm of possibility?

If the Japanese government wanted to solve the problems of aging farmers and a shrinking rural population by consolidating farms (thereby requiring less people to farm the same amount of land), why not use the TPP as a good excuse to implement plans that are anathema to most farmers?  There’s no way the government is so stupid as to think that it would be able to join such a free-trade agreement without giving any concessions, so why wouldn’t they try and give concessions on the things least important to the national economy?

Fingleton’s claim has really put the TPP in a new light for me.  It is an unorthodox way of thinking, to be sure, but I can’t say that it is illogical.  It goes a way to explaining how Japan seems to always be losing in the English-language press, yet always seems to be winning in reality.  I wouldn’t be surprised if things play out this time just the same.

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