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Trade War

Japan races to ratify TPP ahead of pressure from Trump

Revamped trade pact would help resist US push for a separate deal

From left, Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese minister in charge of TPP negotiations, Finance Minister Taro Aso and Foreign Minister Taro Kono listen to a debate at Parliament on April 17.

TOKYO -- Japanese lawmakers on Tuesday began deliberations on the revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government hurries to get the trade and investment pact in force as a bulwark against U.S. demands for a bilateral deal.

The lower house took up a bill that would ratify the 11-member Pacific Rim agreement, which was reworked into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership after the U.S. withdrew in January 2017. 

"Japan wants to be among the first to get it passed," Toshimitsu Motegi, the cabinet minister in charge of the TPP talks, told reporters.

Tokyo's haste comes as the U.S. pushes for trade talks. President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday that America has bilateral trade agreements with six TPP members and is "working to make a deal" with Japan. The president has indicated openness to rejoining the TPP, but only under terms "substantially better than the deal offered" to his predecessor Barack Obama.

The new agreement, which was signed last month in Chile, will enter into force 60 days after ratification by at least six member countries. Japan's approval process entails passing a bill to ratify the deal, as well as related legislation regarding such issues as intellectual property. Doing so during the current legislative session would help pave the way for the deal to take effect late this year or in early 2019.

Tokyo is keen to avoid a two-way deal with the U.S. likely to be skewed by the unequal power relationship between the countries. Before heading to the U.S. this week for a summit with Trump, Abe met with top officials from the trade and foreign ministries, among others, to discuss what approach to take. TPP point man Motegi is accompanying Abe to convey Japan's position on trade talks. The two leaders are scheduled to meet Tuesday and Wednesday.

Should Trump propose negotiating a bilateral deal, Abe plans to nudge him toward the TPP, stressing the pact's significance. As for renegotiation, the prime minister has described the new pact as a delicate piece of "glasswork" that is "extremely difficult to change."

At the same time, Tokyo sees the revamped TPP as a way to parry Washington's demands for a bilateral agreement. Once the Pacific Rim pact takes effect, Japan can more easily point to it to set limits in trade talks.

And if the U.S. wants to rejoin the TPP, it will need to gain the approval of all current members. Tokyo would hold the whip hand, giving it another source of leverage over Washington.

The TPP bill now being debated in parliament is expected to pass as early as the first half of June. But prospects are less clear for related legislation, which the government hopes to see introduced at the committee level as soon as next week.

Given a backlog including bills on revising deregulation zones and treating gambling addiction, passing the TPP legislation by the time the session ends June 20 may prove a tall order.

The original 12-member TPP encountered resistance in parliament as well, not to mention among the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's rural base of support. The ratification bill had to be carried over from the regular session in 2016 to an extra session that fall, where it finally passed. Debate across both chambers stretched to more than 130 hours, owing in part to opposition anger over a memoir by a former farm minister that drew back the curtain on the TPP talks.

"One slip-up would instantly make things harder," a government insider said.

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