Japan’s friends, kept at arm’s length

The Japan Times today has two op-eds that illustrate Japan’s troublesome ties with the US, its ally, and South Korea, its wealthy, democratic neighbor and former colony.

The first, by journalist Hanai Kiroku, calls for a US-Japan economic partnership agreement (EPA), to follow on the heels of the Japan-Australia EPA currently under negotiation. Given the scale of the economic links between the world’s first and second largest economies, the benefits of a US-Japan EPA would be large — and would undoubtedly have spillover benefits for both the search for a compromise in the WTO and the push for an APEC FTA.

But I fear that political conditions in both countries militate against the negotiation and passage of a US-Japan agreement for the foreseeable future. With economic insecurity on the rise in the US, and the president’s trade promotion authority set to expire, a wide-reaching EPA with Japan could very well aggravate US fears of Japan’s economic prowess — imagine the screams that would emanate from Detroit.

In Japan, meanwhile, the opposition to an agreement would be more fundamental, as it would no doubt emanate from Japan’s heavily protected agriculture sector. Hanai makes the sensible suggestion that since Japan is dependent on food imports anyway, it might as well conclude deals that ensure that imported food supplies will remain stable, cheap, and plentiful:

Japan’s calorie-based food self-sufficiency rate is only about 40 percent, much lower than the comparable rates of other countries. Some fear that EPAs with major farm exporting nations such as Australia and the U.S. will lower the rate further. However, in my opinion, Japan should secure stable food supplies from overseas because of its low food-sufficiency rate. If Japan, through EPAs with Australia and the U.S., has both countries promise to refrain from one-sided restrictions on food exports, it will help strengthen Japan’s food security.

For that to happen, though, Japan’s political system will have to change: as long as rural prefectures are the LDP’s power base, and as long as the distribution of power in the political system favors agricultural producers over consumers, any agreement that forces Japan’s farmers to face substantially greater competition will be nigh on impossible. This kind of opposition has already emerged against the Australia EPA negotiations; imagine the opposition that would await EPA negotiations with the US.

The second piece, meanwhile, is Pyon Junbeom and Tsukagoshi Yuka, South Korean and Japanese scholars respectively, writing about concrete steps that South Korea and Japan can take to ease bilateral tensions and build a genuine partnership. I like this piece, because it seeks to craft policies that take into account intangible cultural and historical factors. As they write: “The root of anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea is wounded pride. Koreans feel humiliated and insulted that they, a highly civilized society, were invaded by the Japanese, whom they believed to be barbarians.” A sensible argument, but it leads me to wonder if even their modest recommendations will be difficult to implement. The kind of attitude they describe South Koreans as having seems like it would be difficult to overcome simply through Japanese apologies and other conciliatory measures. I don’t doubt the value of a closer, more active Japan-South Korea partnership, I just doubt whether a South Korea intent on rectifying centuries of shame and a Japan feeling insecure as it watches its neighbors succeed will be able to forge a strong, dynamic friendship.

If Japan is to remain a significant player regionally and globally, however, it better start laying the groundwork for more constructive, open partnerships with its friends now, before it’s too late.

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