By Nicholas Szechenyi, Deputy Director and Fellow, Japan Chair, CSIS
In an address to the Diet on October 1 Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for an “active foreign policy” and urged his fellow citizens to “be bold enough to open up the country and incorporate the vitality of the rest of the world.” In this spirit he championed economic partnership agreements and free trade agreements as “important bridges” toward growth and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and announced his government would consider participating in a multilateral trade liberalization initiative known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
This was a conspicuous attempt at “action” on regional trade in advance of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit Kan his hosting in Yokohama this week, but his initiative on TPP thus far has revealed a lack of consensus on trade liberalization in Japan rather than a steadfast commitment to the cause. “To TPP or not to TPP” is now a subject of heated debate among lawmakers, and Kan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), under pressure from agricultural interests, said “not so fast” by failing to approve a statement allowing Kan to enter detailed discussions with TPP member countries. Instead, the government established a study group to examine the issue and said it would decide whether to join TPP negotiations by around June 2011.
The allergic reaction to the TPP initiative is a setback for Kan and could invite further criticism of his leadership skills amid public concerns about his approach to the economy and foreign policy, which have contributed to a precipitous decline in his approval rating (currently in the thirties on average). Two polls released November 8 suggest public views on TPP are mixed. A Yomiuri Shimbun survey found 61 percent of respondents favored Japan’s involvement in TPP, and 71 percent of those who identified themselves as DPJ supporters were also positive. But a poll by Kyodo News found only 46 percent expressed support for TPP, and 38 percent disapproved.
The discord within the DPJ and conflicting data from government ministries about the economic impact of joining TPP paint a cloudy picture about Japan’s intentions and could render Japan’s involvement a mid- to long-term prospect. But the Kan government’s failure to conquer the politics of trade in five weeks should hardly be a surprise, nor is it necessarily “pathetic.” Kan deserves some credit for putting TPP on the table precisely because it is controversial and necessitates a public debate about the role of trade liberalization in sustaining economic growth. The herculean nature of the effort to change domestic attitudes about trade is certainly not unique to Japan, and the current uproar over TPP is a natural development in a painful process to convince skeptics that entering this trade negotiation is in Japan’s strategic and economic interests. Kan might not remain in power long enough to see this through but appears to recognize that regional economic integration in the Asia-Pacific is proceeding apace, and Japan could end up on the outside looking in. At least he got the ball rolling.