Japan Pushes the Speed Limit on Trade Talks



William Sposato | Foreign Policy

Trade talks with the United States pose a problem for Japan, largely because the Japanese don’t really want to be there. On balance they are happy with the status quo, have no real demands for concessions from Washington, and essentially wish they were not at the table. That makes it all the more remarkable that the talks between Japan’s Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer produced what appears to be a mutual agreement to work towards a quick deal. But it’s a canny tactical move from Tokyo, which has realized that, in this case, speed works to Japan’s advantage.

Until recently, Japan had been signaling that it would instead stick to its tried-and-true formula of dragging out talks for as long as possible. The Japanese ability to rotate negotiators and prolong discussions is nearly legendary among diplomats. U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty raised this concern as recently as February, when he said in an interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had stressed the need for a trade deal in 2017 and 2018 but had no response from Japan. “There was a great deal of frustration trying to get together with our counterparts in Japan,” Hagerty said.

The pattern is very familiar to those involved in the long-running trade conflicts in the 1970s and ’80s, when the Japanese economy appeared to be an export juggernaut that was resolute in erecting every possible barrier to imports. At that time, even as Japan’s Toyota, Panasonic, and Sony became strong U.S. brands, Japan resisted imports, principally to protect the important farm voting bloc and to buy time for domestic industrial producers.

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