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Bruce Stokes: Despite protectionist image, Americans want freer trade with Japan

President Barack Obama will make a state visit to Japan April 24-25, the first such formal journey to the Land of the Rising Sun by an American chief of state since President Bill Clinton's visit in 1996.

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     High on the agenda in Obama's bilateral discussions with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the free trade agreement now under negotiation between the U.S., Japan and 10 other nations. There are myriad politically charged details to be resolved, including greater access to Japan's market for American-produced cars, rice, beef and other agricultural products. U.S. and Japanese negotiators are currently stymied by these issues and their resolution may require tough decisions that only their political masters can make.

     Whether such a breakthrough can be achieved during Obama's visit is impossible to predict. But what is known are the views of the American public about trade, especially with Japan, foreign investment and the TPP. Despite official U.S. concerns about specific elements of the deal, Americans are broadly supportive of it. They back greater commerce with Japan and more foreign investment in the U.S., especially the brick-and-mortar investment Japan has done in the past. And, of particular importance to the White House and Congress, which must eventually approve any trade agreement, Democrats are more supportive of the TPP than Republicans.

Outdated perceptions     

There is a widespread perception in much of Asia, in part a by-product of the trade wars between Washington and Tokyo in the 1980s, that Americans are protectionist. If this was ever the case, it has not been so for some time, at least in principle. Two-thirds, or 66%, of Americans say U.S. involvement in the global economy is a good thing for the U.S., and about three-quarters, or 77%, say growing trade and business ties between the U.S. and other countries are a good thing, up from 53% in 2008, according to a Pew Research Center Survey conducted in 2013.

     Japan is currently the fourth-largest U.S. trading partner. And in a new Pew Research Center survey, conducted in February and March, 74% of Americans said increased trade with Japan would be a good thing, up from 60% in 2010. These supporters include 79% of Republicans, 78% of people ages 18-29, 72% of Democrats and 73% of Americans age 50 or older. Better-educated Americans, those with at least a college education, are particularly supportive of more commerce with Japan, at 84%. By comparison, only 51% of the public said it would like to increase trade with China.

     Americans are also supportive of more foreign companies setting up operations in the U.S., something Japanese businesses, especially those in the auto sector, have been doing extensively since the 1980s. In the Pew Research Center survey done in late 2013, 62% of the public said such investments would mostly help the American economy. There was particularly strong support, at 75%, among the better educated. But even among those with a high-school education or less, more than half, or 54%, said such investment would be mostly good for the U.S. Notably, there are no significant partisan differences in such support for foreign investment between Democrats, Republicans and independents, including adherents of the Tea Party.

Let's do business

The TPP itself has majority support in the U.S. More than half, or 55%, of the public said the TPP will be good for the country. This includes 59% of Democrats and 56% of independents, but only 49% of Republicans. Young people are much more likely than their elders to back a free trade agreement with Asia-Pacific nations, at 65% compared with 49%. About one-in-five Americans, or 19%, said they either do not know how they feel about the TPP, that they have not heard enough about it or that they think it is neither a good thing nor a bad thing.

     This broad American support for international commerce, for increased trade with Japan and for the TPP suggests the political climate in Washington for congressional consideration of an eventual TPP deal may not be as negative as it might appear given the current negotiating deadlock over details of the trade agreement.

     This does not mean, however, that Americans do not have reservations about trade pacts. In a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, 55% of Americans said free trade agreements lead to job losses and 45% said they push down wages. Only 31% said they buy economists' arguments that such deals lower prices for consumers. So the TPP could face headwinds if it ever comes up for approval by Congress.

     But first, Washington and Tokyo need to see if they can resolve their differences. The trade plan may involve 12 nations, but Japan and the U.S. are by far the two biggest economies in the negotiations. And a deal is unlikely if Abe and Obama cannot make some accommodations. In principle, the American public generally thinks a deal would be a good idea. But the details will matter. 

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.

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