Hiroshi Ikematsu and Satoshi Ogawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
WASHINGTON–When lunch was served at the White House on Friday, the string of dishes that followed the tuna appetizer were not the only things on the menu.
It was over lunch that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama discussed the issue of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
At the start of their lunch, Abe mentioned that former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi–Abe’s grandfather–visited the United States for the first time and played golf with then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower.
Abe gave a Japanese putter to Obama, who is a keen golfer.
When U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden asked whose score was better, Abe replied, “That’s a state secret.” Peals of laughter erupted, breaking the ice at the working luncheon.
Taking this opportunity, Obama promptly turned the conversation to the main topic and got down to business. He said Abe’s bold economic policies seemed to be supported by the Japanese.
The Japanese and U.S. governments were locked in hard-nosed dealing as they coordinated the summit meeting. The Japanese side stuck resolutely to its insistence that a joint written document be issued.
In the Abe administration, support for Japan’s participation in the TPP talks remains strong among advocates who believe it will be crucial for generating economy growth.
At the meeting, which lasted for more than two hours, the Japanese side focused most attention on whether Japan would receive an assurance–in writing–that abolishing all tariffs will not be a prerequisite for participating in the multilateral TPP talks.
The United States also has some key items such as sugar and automobiles on which it does not want to make concessions. The Abe administration started sounding out the U.S. side in January, shortly after the administration was established, looking for common ground. “There’s plenty of room for compromise,” a government official said.
At one time, the government considered dispatching Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi to the United States to help move the process along. Wendy Cutler, assistant U.S. trade representative for Japan, Korea and APEC Affairs, and other officials visited Japan to gauge the situation here.
In the United States, opinion is split on whether to roll out the TPP welcome mat for Japan.
Support for Japan’s participation in the TPP talks is strong partly due to expectation that it will help to counter China. But on the other hand, there are concerns that giving Japan a seat at the table could delay the negotiations.
The summit meeting apparently served as a test for Abe, whose party recently regained power from the Democratic Party of Japan, at which Obama himself would decide whether the U.S. government issues a document.
Abe got what he wanted. The joint statement included a sentence that says because the final outcome of the deal will be determined during the negotiations, “it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations.”
A government official said issuing a joint document before entering into negotiations was “extremely unusual.”
Some observers believe the United States made this concession to Japan after judging that the Abe administration will continue for some time if the Liberal Democratic Party wins this summer’s House of Councillors election.
“The United States has high expectations for the Abe administration. This is also a reaction to its disappointment in the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration that lasted for about three years,” a government official said.
The fact that bureaucrats worked feverishly during preliminary negotiations also marked a major change from the days of the DPJ administration.